Complex 'Palindromes'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

WHEN THEY changed the actor playing Darrin in TV's "Bewitched," Todd Solondz said recently, "it didn't seem to faze Samantha at all." This casting change, which also gets jokey mention in the upcoming movie version of "Bewitched," figures largely in Solondz's "Palindromes."

The lead character, you see, is played by not one, but eight very different actors. And they don't look much alike. Two are adults, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and a large-framed African American actress named Sharon Wilkins. One is a 6-year-old girl. The rest are teenagers, including a feminine-looking boy. This ploy is meant to be an intriguing, head-scratching notion on one level but also a provocative invitation to think more deeply about everything, from casting to what this says about our multiple dimensions. And it's just the beginning of many sharp challenges coming your way.

A drama that uses the death of Dawn Wiener, the main character in Solondz's 1995 "Welcome to the Dollhouse," as its starting point, "Palindromes" segues into a scenario that is both banal and shocking. But it's intentionally so, as a conduit for Solondz's more pressing issues about society.

Aviva, a preteen girl (and yes, her name is a palindrome), becomes pregnant after having sex with the son (Robert Agri) of some close friends. Naturally, Aviva's mother (Ellen Barkin) is outraged. A liberal woman, she insists that Aviva have an abortion. But Aviva doesn't agree with the plan. She wants to keep the child. She wants her own baby. (By this time, we are watching the third performer playing Aviva.)

When she's forced to undergo the operation, Aviva runs away. Determined to become pregnant again, she offers herself to truck driver Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who happens to be connected with a group of antiabortion activists. Joe willingly complies, though he is torn with remorse afterward. After winding up in an extended family run by a Christian woman (Debra Monk) named Mama Sunshine, Aviva (who at this point is being played by Wilkins) meets up again with Joe and finds herself caught up in a plan to murder an abortionist.

There are other developments that continue in this provocative vein. And none of it is easy to watch without some discomfort. But it's intentional. Most of us, without realizing it, have deeply held, inviolable "rules" about art and entertainment, let alone life. And it's likely that many will consider "Palindromes" an empty exercise in provocation or, somehow, "wrong"; or that its blend of caricature and serious purpose pokes fun at stereotypes of evangelical or born-again Christians; or that it does the same with liberals; that it's a blue-state film about red-state America; that's it's a red-state film about blue-state America; that it's pro-life; that's it's anti-life; that it's sheer exploitation.

All and none of the above are true. "Palindromes" references all these ideas, taboos, prejudices and so on, forcing the viewer to consider them. But as soon as the film seems to be taking some sort of assertive stand, it suddenly runs for the very opposite. A character who appears saintly will have a terrible flaw. A sexual predator will suddenly soften and become human before our eyes. Born-again Christians talking about the sanctity of life plan to murder an abortionist. The movie demands moral elasticity. No firmly held opinion is safe. And there is a distinct strain of compassion between the lines. There is dark humor, too. ("How many times can I be born again?" asks one unfortunate believer who has problems staying his moral course.) Of course, the experience isn't for everyone. But it amounts to intellectual penicillin for our sequel-driven, franchise-heavy entertainment culture. And it brings home our inflexibility about other more hot-button issues. For those willing to take it, "Palindromes" has its share of backhanded rewards.

PALINDROMES (Unrated, 101 minutes) -- Contains shocking, provocative material, sexual scenes, obscenity and violence. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company