42. Palindromes (2004) [Not Rated]

summary from

The film opens with the funeral of Dollhouse’s Dawn Weiner. Aviva is her young cousin who cannot comprehend why Dawn would have committed suicide because of an unwanted pregnancy because Aviva wants to be impregnated more than anything else. She soon finds a family friend, Judah, is more than willing to have sex with her. The parents, horrified to discover that their daughter has indeed gotten pregnant force her to get an abortion which, though successful in destroying the unwanted child, also renders Aviva barren. Only her parents are aware of this however, so Aviva soon runs away from home to find another potential father for her child.

directed by: Todd Solondz

starring: Ellen Barkin, Richard Riehle, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Conservo-Libertarian Reviews:
Rightwing Film Geek
Thomas Hibbs at National Review Christian reviews

A Trailer

Abortion/Life Content:

Plot summary from wikipedia:

The movie opens with a funeral for a young woman. The person who has died is Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), the main character from Solondz’s film Welcome to the Dollhouse, who went to college, became pregnant [1], and committed suicide. Her brother Mark (Matthew Faber, reprising his role) reads the eulogy while Dawn’s tearful parents sit in the audience.

Aviva is her cousin who desires to have a child. She has sex with Judah, a family friend, and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s parents are horrified and demand she get an abortion. While technically successful, in her dazed state it is implied via a fractured, emotional conversation with the doctor that Aviva can no longer have children. Not fully conscious, Aviva is unaware of this, and her parents, already fragile, lead her to believe all is well when she awakens, afraid to upset Aviva.

Aviva runs away from home. She befriends a trucker and has sex with him. However, the trucker abandons her at a motel. She is eventually found by the Sunshine Family, a Christian fundamentalist foster home that cares for orphans and runaways. She tells them her name is Henrietta—the name she picked for the baby she was persuaded to abort.

While at the Sunshine Family home she discovers a dark side to the foster father; he is a murderer of abortion providers. His next target is the doctor who performed Aviva’s abortion. The hitman who the foster father uses is the same trucker Aviva previously befriended and had sex with.

Convinced she is in love with the truck driver, she flees the Sunshine Family to join him on his assignment. The murder does not go as planned as, in addition to the doctor himself, the trucker (whose name is revealed to be Bob) ends up accidentally shooting the doctor’s young daughter when she steps in front of the first shot. The police find Bob and Aviva both in a motel room, and Bob completes suicide by cop.

The movie then skips ahead to Aviva back home with her parents, planning her next birthday party. During the party, she talks to her cousin Mark Wiener, who has recently been accused of molesting a baby. Mark denies having done it but the film never reveals whether he did it or not. Then the film skips ahead to Aviva meeting Judah, who now calls himself Otto, and them having sex again. Once again, Aviva believes she is pregnant and is happy about it, though the viewer knows she in fact will never have children.

part of a review from

In the first episode, right after Dawn’s funeral, Aviva is a young African-American girl (Emani Sledge) who tells her mom, Joyce (Ellen Barkin), that she doesn’t want to end up like her cousin; she wants to have lots and lots of babies so that she’ll always feel loved. A few years later, a post-pubescent Aviva (Valerie Shusterov) single-mindedly gets herself knocked up, whereupon the pressure from her parents to abort the baby is relentless and hysterical. Joyce even tells Aviva (now Hannah Freiman) that the credit for their special mother-daughter relationship belongs partly to “little Henry”—the child she aborted when Aviva was three. At the clinic, the anti-abortion protesters fall to their knees and exhort her to turn back, but Joyce guides the dazed Aviva into the doctor’s waiting stirrups.

Joyce’s “Henry” monologue is a doozy; I found my pleasure at seeing Barkin (she hasn’t been much in evidence since marrying a billionaire—the biggest loss to movies this side of Debra Winger) mitigated by my horror at the brainlessly self-absorbed monster she was playing. The voice that Solondz gives to his characters isn’t flamboyantly comic, but it’s full of easy condescension and apt to flare up suddenly into cruel caricature. He underscores the mockery with a la-la-la vocal out of Rosemary’s Baby. You can’t always tell what he thinks would be the greater injury: aborting a child or bringing it into a world like this.

I won’t spell out what happens at that clinic—only that Aviva’s subsequent odyssey takes her right into the bosom of a floridly Jesus-centric conclave overseen by a dimply ray of sunshine known as, well, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). In this, the centerpiece of Palindromes, Aviva is played by Sharon Wilkins, an obese young African-American actress with a classically pretty face. Mama Sunshine’s house teems with smiling, singing, dancing disabled kids—real ones, in many cases. Solondz doesn’t photograph them insensitively (he is rather tender with them), but there’s a circus-menagerie quality to the entire episode that goes to the heart of his world-of-freaks aesthetic. Mama Sunshine turns them into smiling zombies, while downstairs, in the basement, the men-folk don’t just bewail all those aborted fetuses. They take justice into their own hands.

There is so much “transgressive” imagery in Palindromes that it’s hard to know where to begin: the huge Wilkins walking through the woods with a little boy (Alexander Brickel); the sex between the 15-year-old Aviva (Rachel Corr) and a visibly conflicted trucker (Stephen Adly Guirgis); the pale, white, blind girl talking about her drug-addict mother’s attempt to abort her with a coat hanger; the mountain of garbage containing dead fetuses in plastic bags. It’s almost a relief when Jennifer Jason Leigh, the only familiar Aviva, appears: We’ve seen her dissolving on camera so many times that her presence is rather soothing…


part of an interview with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh at The Observer:

While The Machinist is a thoughtful and intricate film, it doesn’t come close to Palindromes, the latest from Tod Solondz, for complexity or sheer weirdness. The palindrome of the title is the name of its protagonist, Aviva, a 12-year-old girl who, desperate for a baby, gets pregnant by some nearby ne’er-do-well. Her parents force her to have an abortion. She runs away, and fetches up in the house of some pro-life born-again Christians. The abortion-forcing parents are by far the vilest people in the film, while a passing trucker, who has sex with Aviva and then abandons her at a motel, is, broadly, quite a sympathetic character.

You could walk out of the cinema thinking you’d seen 100 minutes of anti-abortion polemic, with a side order of “paedophiles aren’t necessarily all that bad”; however, I think the clue is in the title. Solondz takes cornerstone liberal truths — abortion is fine, child abuse is evil — and works at them from the diametrically opposite pole, to see if they read the same backwards (that is, in a world in which liberals are intolerant and evil, and fundamentalist Christians are kindly and big-hearted). Nevertheless, it’s an unsettling, unpleasant film. Jason Leigh plays Aviva towards the end of the film (the actor playing the role changes throughout). “I’d been wanting to work with Tod since Welcome To The Dollhouse, and I auditioned twice for Happiness … once, and I didn’t get the part, and then I begged to audition again, and still didn’t get it.”

She takes a studiedly neutral line on the politics of the film. “I’d much rather be in a movie that people have really strong feelings about than one that makes a hundred million dollars but you can’t remember because it’s just like all the others. Sure, he’s given us this movie in which the most loving person is this born-again Christian who wants to kill abortion doctors, but you know, it’s a movie directed by a liberal intellectual, so it’s not … ” She trails off — her line is basically, “Don’t worry, this can’t be ethically dodgy, because we’re in safe, liberal hands.”

by Dave Andrusko from National Right to Life:

But today we’ll briefly talk about “Palindromes,” described by Hollywood Reporter as a highly stylized, surrealistic “fable about abortion that follows a very young woman who goes on a quest for a baby she’s no longer capable of having.” She is no longer capable because when Aviva became pregnant as a young girl, “Aviva’s mother [Ellen Barkin], drags her screaming to an abortion clinic where things go wrong. Unbeknown to the girl, she is given a hysterectomy.”

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the family the deeply unhappy Aviva encounters after she leaves home is a bunch of “Jesus-loving, right-to-lifers named the Sunshines.” Aviva “falls for a lummox named Bob” who is “also assigned by the Sunshines to go back to New Jersey and murder Aviva’s abortionist.”

A palindrome is a word that is spelled the same way forward and backward–Aviva. In this case director Todd Solondz’s summary explanation of the bizarre film makes no sense whether read forwards or backwards: “This is a young girl who has loving parents who fail her in some way [!], who finds herself suspended between a pro-choice family who gives her no choice, and the pro-life family that kills.”

That pro-lifers in Solondz’s film are hammered is hardly a surprise, although I gather from the reviews I read that Solondz is taking the position it’s up to audiences to “decide.” Decide what, I’m not entirely sure.

But there is no ambiguity in the comments Ellen Barkin made last Tuesday as she was promoting “Palindromes.” Barkin “stoked up the abortion debate” at the Venice Film Festival press conference when she talked about her own daughter.

“I am the mother of a 12-year-old girl,” Barkin said, according to AFP news service, “and I can tell you unequivocally that if my daughter was pregnant, I would take her kicking and screaming to have an abortion.”

We’ll pick up on that thought, and the other two films, on Tuesday.

“Actress Ellen Barkin Would Force Her Daughter to Have an Abortion” from

Actress Ellen Barkin, who stars in the film “Palindromes,” startled those attending the Venice Film Festival this week by saying she would force her daughter to have an abortion.

“I am the mother of a 12-year-old girl and I can tell you unequivocally that if my daughter was pregnant, I would take her kicking and screaming to have an abortion,” Barkin said at a press conference Tuesday to publicize her new movie.

In the film, Barkin, who starred in “The Big Easy” and won an Emmy in 1997 for her role in “Before Women Had Wings,” plays the mother of a teenager girl who is forced by her parents to have an abortion.

The heroine, 12 year-old Aviva, wants to be a mother. After a neighbor impregnates her, Aviva’s mother (Barkin) insists on the abortion.

Aviva runs away from home and stays with a loving Christian woman, Mama Sunshine, who takes care of the adolescent and protects her unborn child.

Pro-life groups are already up in arms about the movie Palindromes, with its images of dead unborn babies in medical pans and its distorted portrait of those who oppose abortion as violent extremists.

In the film, directed by Todd Solondz, pro-life proponents are responsible for the assassination of an abortion practitioner and his child.

Because the content of the movie was so controversial and potentially offensive, big budget film studios in Hollywood refused to bankroll the movie, so Solondz paid for it himself.

“This movie was made for very little money … nobody would touch it,” Solondz told the London Guardian newspaper.

In an interview with the Guardian, Solondz says he’s tired of the pro-life movement’s success and that appears to be his motive for making the film.

“They [the pro-life movement] have been winning the war for a long time,” he said.

“In our country, we have … this movement which is just growing exponentially and creating its own base to set policy,” Solondz told the London newspaper. “And what sets policy in the U.S. of course has ramifications throughout the world.”

from The Guardian:

It is grimly fitting that Todd Solondz’s new feature, Palindromes, should be opening barely a month after the death of Terri Schiavo. The bitter and undignified row over the brain-damaged 41-year-old Florida woman, kept alive for 15 years, could easily have been an episode from one of Solondz’s movies. Family members were set against family members as her case was fought out in the full glare of the US media.

In films like Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz has proved himself one of the supreme chroniclers of dysfunctional American family life, but acknowledges that Schiavo trumps anything he could dream up. “Nothing I do or ever have done or can ever do can ever compete with the obscenity and grotesquerie of the 24/7 Terri Schiavo show,” he says. “I mean, this poor woman who cared so much about her appearance that she later became bulimic … it’s like her greatest nightmare: that you’re on television being shown in the most unflattering way. This woman who didn’t want to eat – the president was forcing her to eat, forcing her to keep the tube in.”

As the ferocious debate about Schiavo shows, there are certain subjects with the ability to polarise US society. In Palindromes, Solondz deals head-on with one of the most contentious: abortion. He was originally inspired to write his screenplay by the case of Eric Rudolph, the pro-life activist charged with the 1998 bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic. “To be an abortionist today in the States is, to my mind, very heroic,” Solondz says. “Who wants to put their lives on the line? You get assassinated, there are bombs in the clinics. There are so many other easier ways to make a living. You put yourself in a very vulnerable place if you do choose that calling.”

Not that Palindromes is simply an issue-based film. Solondz describes it as a companion piece to his breakthrough feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), about the tribulations of a geeky, bespectacled 11-year-old junior high school student called Dawn Weiner. His hopes of making a straight sequel to Dollhouse were scotched when the young actress Heather Matarazzo told him she would never play the part of Dawn again. He therefore opens the new movie with Dawn’s funeral.

Palindromes is very hard to classify, not least because its main character, the 12-year-old heroine (and would-be mum) Aviva, is played by two women, four girls (13-14 years old), one 12-year-old boy and one six year old girl. By the final reel, she has mysteriously morphed into Jennifer Jason Leigh. Solndoz explains his narrative gambit. “I have a certain faith in audiences that if you set up a series of rules, even if they are very strange rules, if you adhere to them, people will accept it. At first, they might not understand why Aviva is a little black child and then she is Dominican, then she becomes a redhead. But you see there is a pattern and you just have to go with the experience because the narrative is very straightforward, very traditional and very conventional in many ways.”

Just like Dawn Weiner, Aviva is growing up in the suburbs. She longs to have her own baby, primarily because she is starved of affection by her parents. When she accidentally gets pregnant after having fumbled sex with the neighbours’ overweight teenage son, it briefly looks as if her dream will be fulfilled. Then her overbearing mother Joyce (Ellen Barkin) intervenes and demands she have an abortion. “It’s not a baby just yet. It’s like it’s just a tumour,” Joyce reassures Aviva as she is whisked off to an abortion clinic which is being picketed by placard-waving pro-life campaigners.

While researching Palindromes, Solondz thoroughly checked the US laws surrounding abortion. “If you are a pregnant child or girl, you become immediately what is called an ’emancipated minor’,” he explains. “This means that in fact nobody can actually force you to have an abortion … but if you have forceful, powerful parents – as most children do – it’s hard not to submit.”

Aviva’s operation goes wrong. We learn (but she doesn’t) that she will now never be able to have children. Aviva runs away from home and strikes out across America, determined to get pregnant again. Her travels eventually lead her to the home of Mama Sunshine, a bible-bashing matriarch in charge of a household full of happy, clapping disabled kids. Mama clucks over Aviva. She is a kindly, benevolent woman, very different to Aviva’s own mother, the Cruella De Vil-like Ellen Barkin. The irony about Mama Sunshine is that she so pro-life she is prepared to kill.

At times, Palindromes seems like a Swiftian satire, highlighting the hypocrisy of pro-choice liberals and evangelical fundamentalists alike. Disconcertingly, it also has the hallmarks of a fairy tale: Aviva (in her many different incarnations) is the innocent abroad, a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The repeated use of the haunting melody from Rosemary’s Baby suggests we may be straying into horror movie territory. In showing the assassination of the abortionist, Solondz flirts with the political thriller. The film is often tasteless in the extreme (witness the images of foetuses in garbage dumps), but is far gentler and more humorous than its occasional recourse to shock tactics may lead viewers to expect. […]

In all his features, Solondz has dealt with delicate subjects, often involving children. Casting the kids in Palindromes wasn’t as problematic as might have been imagined, despite paedophilic characters, references to abortion and assassination scenes. “I don’t have children but if I did and my child wanted to act, I’d be fine with him acting in my movie where I feel a certain dignity is accorded,” says Solondz. “But I would never let my child act in a commercial for the Gap or Banana Republic or for some other consumer goods corporation. That would be the obscenity.”


Solondz’s forte, as always, is the delicious gap that he is able to create between the tone of a scene and the sentiments characters express within it. Thus, when the Barkin character is trying to comfort her daughter by recounting an earlier abortion of her own, amidst all the overwrought expressions of a mother’s love and the gooey, sentimental music, she talks of “getting rid of that little Henry guy.” At another moment she tries to convince Aviva that her fetus is not really a baby at all, but “just a tumor.”

from Rightwing Film Geek’s review:

…this fall’s other prestigious film-festival abortion movie with a pro-abortion director and star is worthy of all the loathing and hate we can muster. PALINDROMES, which has yet to be released, is a truly hateful film. Not primarily because it’s pro-abortion, mind you. If it were merely propaganda, like what some will see VERA DRAKE as being, I’d still feel obliged at least to try to bracket that and judge its merits as a work of art, the same way I’d look at TRIUMPH OF THE WILL or BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN or BIRTH OF A NATION. But PALINDROMES’s problems are even more basic than that — it truly is one of the most unrelievedly misanthropic experiences I have ever had and, like A HOLE IN MY HEART, it is unpleasant to share the theater with it.

PALINDROMES follows a young girl Aviva, played by several different actresses (to no discernable effect or reason), who mindlessly sleeps with a boy, becomes pregnant, is forced to abort by her parents, runs away for a Candide-like picaresque through a fantasy world of various sexual depravities. The largest part of the running time covers Aviva’s experiences as she’s taken in by Mama Sunshine, an evangelical Christian who has adopted a score of unwanted children.

PALINDROMES caricatures the pro-life Christian “family” — quite viciously, quite untruthfully and worst of all, totally uninsightfully. (I love how this film makes such fun of a large family of adopted children when one of the standard pro-abortion talking points has long been “how many unwanted kids have YOU raised.” Damned if you do …) PALINDROMES would qualify as hate speech against Christians if the term “hate speech” were applied neutrally. Solondz plainly knows nothing about Christian culture — the family, which is coded as evangelical Protestant in a hundred ways from the decor and pictures to the theological terminology (“saved,” e.g.), but also recites the standard Catholic “Grace Before Meals” prayer. Everyone talks in a practicedly-happy sing-songy patter that the Von Trapp kids would have found too sugary. And this ignorance cripples Solondz’s ability to make even a good satirical point.

For example, after being taken in, Aviva is kicked out of Mama Sunshine’s family because of her sexual past. I’m sure that makes good cluck-cluck material for cocktail party gabbles at the Manhattan hen coop — “nasty Christians, being judgmental” and all that sniffing. Except that it’s 180 degrees from the truth or even anything believable. If anything, evangelical Protestants have a tendency to play UP their pre-conversion sins. Rather than ostracize someone over “a past,” they eagerly detail it during Revival Week as testimony to Christ’s power — “oh, was I ever a sinner until I was found by the Lord. Let me how tell you bad a sinner I was” … etc., etc. In fact, this kind of material can even be found in such gliterati-approved movies as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and ELMER GANTRY. What would have been truthful would have been if Aviva had been embraced for her past sins; what could have been funny was if she made up stuff to go along with (or even trying to one-up) “testimonies” from others; what could have been darkly satirical was if, having found her testimonies inadequate, she went out to commit more-outlandish sins in order to have something worthwhile to testify to or to win approval. Right there, are two more good comedy ideas than are found in PALINDROMES. Instead we get self-righteous snigger-at-flyover-Xtians cheap shots like kids saying “pass the Freedom Toast” in that annoying sing-songy timed-to-the-laugh-beat rhythm, a family contemporary-Christian song that plays like the songs sung by the Brady Bunch, the adding of “born and unborn” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and a REALLY over-the-top prayer graphically detailing every manner of abortion procedure. Said by a kid of about 7.

The tone of mockery without laughs is continual. One of the actresses playing Aviva is a very large woman, 300 pounds at least. And Solondz often dresses her in the tight-clinging, skimpy outfits of a Friday Night Disco Slut that she’s spilling out of and hanging over as if she doesn’t know how to dress “fat.” My complaint, I hasten to note, is not about sexiness or attractiveness per se, but about Solondz’s exploitation of this woman’s build and how his costume choices and the way he directs this woman are indistinguishable from an attempt to humiliate her (humiliate the actress that is, not the character she’s playing). When a shirtless Chris Farley does a Chippendale dance-off audition next to a bare-chested Patrick Swayze, that’s funny only because Farley camps it up and boogies as if he’s the sexiest man alive, born to be a Chippendale dancer. But Solondz directs Aviva, no matter who’s playing her, to play meek and depressed, the sort of person who always looks down and averts her eyes. And who speaks in a low monotone like a dog that’s been whipped once too often. Every moment looking at this 300-pound woman playing Aviva in this key, and dressed this deliberately-disgust-inducing way … you feel sorry for **the actress,** stuck in this geek show, and just want to avert your eyes from the screen.

But what makes this movie absolutely irredeemable is that these portrayals (and, of course you know you will not see pro-life Christians in a Hollywood or Indiewood movie without some tie to the handful of people who have taken to murdering abortionists) are not worse than the way Ellen Barkin (Aviva’s mother) is caricatured. I even felt sorry for pro-choice people when a character presented the case for an abortion. She tells her daughter, that if she has the baby “you’ll have to go on Food Stamps.” (“And buy big jars of mayonnaise at a Costco on Staten Island,” I wanted to add.) But then I found out I didn’t have to. Barkin goes on to tell her daughter that she aborted her sibling and tells her that if she hadn’t done so, the family couldn’t have afforded “the N’Sync tickets,” “the Gap accounts” … “the Ben N Jerry’s” (the Toronto audience was yukking it up by this point, and I practically snapped). And I don’t know how to take the fact the audience also laughed at the “it’s just a tumor” line. Even beyond the inherent mockworthy facts of the lines is the way, typical for him, that Solondz directs Barkin’s delivery of her lines — delivered with a fake conviction so practiced that it can’t be believed for a second, and with the actress pausing for every unintentional potential punch line her character serves up to give the audience a chance to laugh at her. And then, a perfectly timed two beats after a moment of reconciliation, we get the father beating on the door and yelling “open the god-damn door.”

I can’t even give PALINDROMES credit for portraying the risks of abortion — hemorrhaging and an emergency hysterectomy (even for a safe, legal surgical abortion to which rich people had access for 50 times the cost 50 years ago). Partly because it’s softened by being shot in a soft white-frame and slow piano tinkles, with the focus so soft as to make the image incomprehensibly blurry like this was a Valentine’s Day douche commercial. But also partly because it’s not from any kind of pro-life conviction. Nor is it even from a pro-choice stances that feels self-conflicted, has room for tragedy or has intellectual integrity. It’s simply one more ranty verse in a “the world is shit” litany. The film looked as ugly as it felt — with the color recessive and grainy — and it probably was not a help that the audience was yukking it up throughout. Nothing is more alienating than seeing a movie with a big crowd that thinks it’s all SO funny when you don’t.

I watched PALINDROMES sitting next to a friend whom I call on my links to the right a “godless pinko.” Michael also hated the film (scroll down to 15 Sept.) and said as we left the theater, close as I can recall, “I felt insulted for you, Victor — that I was sitting next to a Christian who was being subjected to that film.” When a pro-life sniper who has attacked an abortionist’s home gets into a shootout with police, I saw Michael hit his head on the back of the (very comfortable stadium-theater) chair in frustration at the line “how many more times can I be born again.” To make me angry over the portrayal of an abortion-pusher and to get Waz angry over the portrayal of a Christian family and a pro-life murderer. That’s an achievement — I guess. What I will truly to my last breath hold against this film is that I thought Solondz’s earlier films were at least good, and I even named HAPPINESS best film of the year back in 1998. I’m now afraid to go back and look at that earlier work. So not only was PALINDROMES bad in itself, but it may have robbed my memory of a masterpiece — and that’s just unforgivable.

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