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Maternal Instinct: Ellen Barkin does a number on her daughter Aviva (Jennifer Jason Leigh in one incarnation) in 'Palindromes.'

Pro and Con

'Palindromes': no fetus can defeat us

By Richard von Busack

IN THE COMING YEARS, one of two things will happen. Either the Republicans will pack the Supreme Court, overturning Roe v. Wade and dooming thousands of women to back-alley abortions or unwanted pregnancies. Or the Democrats will prevail in allowing untold numbers of innocent babies to be murdered in pro-death parlors. This drastically simple either/or narrative is behind the film Palindromes. Auteur and misery-goat filmmaker Todd Solondz damns both sides of the debate for failing to understand one another.

Solondz (Happiness, Storytelling) stages Palindromes as a mix of Jack Chick pamphlet and the Brothers Grimm. A series of actresses, of mixed race, size and age, play a heroine with the life-affirming name Aviva. (While the most famous model for this alternating-actress scheme is Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, many an ordinary Hollywood epic has three actors playing the hero as child, young man and mature adult.)

Haunted by the horrible off-screen suicide of her cousin Dawn Wiener (the "Wiener Dog" from Solondz's art house success Welcome to the Dollhouse), Dawn's 6-year-old cousin Aviva longs to have a child of her own. When she's just past puberty, she is mounted by an unsavory kid named Judah, who she hopes will get her pregnant. It works, but she is forced into an abortion by her shrewish mom (Ellen Barkin, dripping venom). Just as the anti-choice fearmongers warn, the abortion has complications and leaves Aviva sterile.

Aviva hits the road, sometimes posing as "Henrietta" (the name she was going to give her unborn daughter). A sheepish truck driver picks her up and seduces her. Wandering across America, she ends up in Kansas staying with the happy adopted Christian family of "Mama Sunshine." If the early part of the film made pro-choicers grind their teeth, here's payback. Aviva joins an adopted family of unwanted and birth-defect-ridden children organized as a musical act: a Christian Partridge Family, fed on "liberty toast" and Jesus' Tears cookies.

Aviva's wanderings are journeys that literally change her from one person into another; they also keep the movie from claustrophobia. The last scene in Happiness wasn't nauseating because of the pedophile's confession—it was nauseating because of the living-room furniture. The acting is at a high level throughout. Solondz's unsparkling humor keeps the film light when you least expect it, such as when Mama Sunshine's perkiest child, Peter Paul (Alexander Brickel), tells the story of a girl who unaccountably left their happy house: "She ran away. And she didn't even have any legs."

Shayna Levine in the truck-driver scenes is the standout Aviva; she is as talented and touching as a later-generation version of Margaret O'Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis. The 40ish Jennifer Jason Leigh is well cast to play the aged Aviva, weary inside and disappointed, in the film's darkest scene. Oddly, Leigh doesn't have Aviva's last word. This dire, pessimistic director is clearly mellowing. Solondz throws the audience a bone, with the idea of a happy mother and a happy child somewhere far away outside the fury of the world.

Palindromes (Unrated; 100 min.), directed and written by Todd Solondz, photographed by Tom Richmond and starring Ellen Barkin, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Shayna Levine, opens Friday at Ciné[email protected] Row and CinéArts Palo Alto Square.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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