Abortion. Underage sex. Pre-teen pregnancy and the murder of a termination-providing doctor... Todd Solondz is back. The writer-director behind Welcome To The Dollhouse and Happiness has never shied away from taboo subjects and Palindromes is another daring boundary-pusher/affront to decency, depending on your take. With its intentional echoes of Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz, it's a particularly dark and unsettling fairy tale - - the title hinting at the theme. It uses the journey of the innocent young Aviva to show the increasingly fundamentalist nature of American society, whether liberal or conservative. All elements come under Solondz's beady eye (he's an equal opportunities offender) and there's a mordant irony to the fact that both Aviva's pro-choice parents and her pro-life surrogate mother (Debra Monk) kill in their different ways.
But what makes Palindromes so startling, and undeniably confusing on first viewing, is that Aviva is played by eight different actors and actresses, who are of different ages, races and genders. Partly this is an alienation technique, designed to remind us we are watching fiction. Yet these switches in identity help focus on one of the film's key questions: to what extent do people really change as a result of their life experiences? Or are we like the palindromes of the title, the same forwards as backwards?
As always Solondz blends pungent humour and genuine seriousness. A scene where a group of disabled children perform a song-and-dance routine in tribute to the visiting doctor may, perhaps, be considered to be in bad taste. At the same time, it's in this community, situated near to a trailer full of dead foetuses, that Aviva is welcomed with unconditional love by both Mama Sunshine and the residents. And Solondz also satirises Aviva's home background with a scathing depiction of her self-centred mother (Ellen Barkin), who rationalises that her daughter's early stage of pregnancy is "not a foetus, it's just a tumour."