Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
By now, indie rebel Todd Solondz is known for several trademarks, and they all make the usual appearances: The unblinking stare at unconventional morality, the blunt transgressiveness of his punchlines, the rooting for a pitiable loser who doesn't even achieve a symbolic victory, the gleeful pressing of political hot buttons. But with this film, his most accomplished to date and his first drama, he adds two new techniques: Lyricism and allegory. Before, he simply showed us freaks and pariahs with no meaning beyond their own little worlds; here, he crafts a genuinely haunting, visually beautiful movie about a girl who means a lot more about what it is to be free in our radically politicized society.
The film is of abortion, but it is not about it: It does not comment on whether abortion is right or wrong in this context or any context. It succeeds at treating both its pro-life and pro-choice characters evenly, at first making them into comical stereotypes and then revealing the depths of compassion beneath them. Instead, the film takes the most passionately charged issue of modern America and quietly shows that people on both sides are prisoners of their own beliefs, taking other people's lives so they can hold their precious values so dear. When the film, in a scene of breathtaking beauty, puts its heroine in a toy tugboat and sends her downriver, Solondz makes clear that the spirit of oppression Mark Twain railed again a century ago is still lurking in our nation today, and still children are largely paying the price for it.
If you're heard of "Palindromes" before, it's probably because of its casting gimmick: Eight different actresses of varying races and ages (and even gender) play the same 13-year-old white heroine. Since every actress plays her alike, it's not very distracting, but it does beg the question of what exactly Solondz is trying to achieve. Every review I've read seems to interpret his choice differently, from suggesting that Solondz argues we're all equally oppressed when any one of us is oppressed, to suggesting that Solondz wants us each to identify with the heroine by giving us as many different heroines as possible, to suggesting that Solondz wants us to realize that we judge different people differently even if they make the same choices. My own interpretation, which proved to be correct when I bought the DVD and read the eloquent liner notes, is much simpler: Solondz is telling an emotional story as much as a political one, and each actress represents the heroine's emotional state and self-perception at that moment, sometimes sweet, sometimes ugly, sometimes grown-up, sometimes heartbreakingly innocent. When she finds salvation in a Christian household, her awkward path there makes her feel like a giant freak who doesn't belong, so Solondz casts a morbidly obese black woman to stand out among the tiny white children ("Gulliver among the Lilliputians" as Solondz puts it). After she has a particularly difficult journey and feels world-weary, he casts 43-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh to play her. These external manifestations of her inner emotional state are invisible to the other characters and in another movie would be invisible to us too; by showing us so explicitly how the heroine feels about herself at every turn, it makes the movie that much more wrenching and powerful. Before, Solondz has made us think; at last he is making us feel.
There are numerous other virtues worth mentioning, not the least of which are the brilliant performances by Sharon Wilkins, Debra Monk, and especially Ellen Barkin in their roles, but my words would be wasted if I have not already convinced you to see it. There are people who cannot enjoy a movie on the subject of abortion and people who cannot enjoy a movie with different actors in the lead role; there's nothing wrong with that, and those viewers are right to skip this title. But for viewers open to this material, and especially viewers who have seen Solondz's other movies and will appreciate how he is openly building on the foundation of his earlier work, will hopefully find this movie as exquisite and as moving as I did. It is not to be seen lightly, but it is to be seen.