At first, Palindromes' central gimmick—a desperate lead character played by different actresses, ranging from skinny white girls to a morbidly obese black woman—seems a little like the comedy/drama split in Melinda And Melinda: a transparent attempt to put a new spin on the same old, tired shtick. But Todd Solondz's latest wallow in the depths of human misery gains a queasy sort of power after its pathetic heroine embarks on a mythic journey of sorts. Palindromes becomes a strangely compelling fractured fable, a grim cinematic fairy tale heightened by Nathan Larson's delicate, bittersweet score. Like Wes Anderson's films or David Gordon Green's Undertow, Solondz seems to be looking to the literature of his childhood for inspiration, though with American cinema's prickliest misanthrope this side of Vincent Gallo in the director's chair, there's little danger of happy endings or anthropomorphic animal sidekicks.
Palindromes continues Solondz's life work of picking relentlessly at society's most painful psychic scabs. Here, he returns to some of his most cherished pet subjects—pedophilia, the most excruciating moments of childhood and adolescence, alienation, and suburban ennui—while adding a slew of hot topics guaranteed to make most viewers squirm uncomfortably in their seats: abortion, Christian fundamentalism, militant pro-lifers, and the disabled. A semi-sequel to Welcome To The Dollhouse, Palindromes opens with a dedication to that film's lead character, who unsurprisingly chose to end her miserable existence. Heather Matarazzo's hapless Dollhouse anti-heroine turns out to be the cousin of Palindromes' lead character, a 13-year-old with only one goal in life: to become pregnant and have lots and lots of babies. When she achieves the first part of that goal, mother Ellen Barkin takes her straight to the abortion clinic, after delivering an agonizing speech about her own terminated pregnancy. After the abortion, Palindromes' protagonist promptly sets out to become pregnant again, a quest that leads her to a tortured pedophilic trucker and eventually to a pair of grinning Jesus freaks whose home functions as a way-station for the disabled. There, children are trained for a pop group that combines synthetic boy-band melodies and stage moves, the values of the Moral Majority, and a touch of Mr. Show's Indomitable Spirit thrown in for good measure.
Like the rest of Solondz's filmography, Palindromes takes place largely in a suburb of the damned, with drab, airless hermetic rooms that look like they've never been graced by sunlight. Only when leaving the stifling confines of home does the film take off in new and unexpected directions, albeit ones which inevitably loop back to previous obsessions. Through the film's audacious central conceit, Solondz asserts that identity is not fluid or slippery, but rather a prison, a trap, a one-person hell. It's nowhere near as jarring as it should be that the same character at the same age is played by everyone from unknown child actors to Jennifer Jason Leigh, since each actress conveys the same desperate, almost unbearable simpering neediness. In Solondz's morbidly fascinating dystopia, it doesn't matter whether someone's black or white, young or old, straight or gay, skinny or fat, able-bodied or handicapped. In the end, everyone's equally screwed anyway.