Aviva is 12 and wants a baby – someone who’ll always love her. She has sex with the son of family friends and becomes pregnant. At her mom’s insistence she has an abortion and soon after runs away. She turns up at the home of Mama and Papa Sunshine, fundamentalist Christians with a huge adopted family of unwanted and disabled children. Aviva finds love.
Director Solondz’s earlier films Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness are funny, hardhitting satires on Middle America. Palindromes is a simpler, bleaker story, and perplexing – Solondz casts eight different children and adults as Aviva. Although tricksy, even weird, it works – the different actors reflect changes in Aviva. Abandoned after a sexual encounter, gawky white teenager Aviva becomes an adult African American woman – she’s older, wiser, more mature.
In the final scene, a lonely nerdy character, who looks remarkably like Solondz, lectures Aviva that people are programmed by genes and chance and they don’t change. The film’s title suggests this – a palindrome reads the same when read normally or backwards, like ‘Aviva’. So is Solondz saying people are the same however we look at them, that fundamentally they don’t change?
Aviva certainly ends up where she started, living at home with her comfortable, status-conscious family – and seeing the boy who made her pregnant. He now calls himself Otto – another palindrome. Yet Solondz casts 30-something Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s been round the block a few times, as the final Aviva. Leigh’s presence suggests she’s bigger than suburban consumerism or desperate Christianity. Palindromes doesn’t offer Aviva much of a choice, but it’s grimly entertaining, intriguing, and challenging.