Aviva Victor is a 6-year-old black girl. She’s also a series of 13- to 14-year-old white girls, an androgynous white boy, a heavyset black woman and, ultimately, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Confused? Well, don’t feel bad. Todd Solondz, the writer-director of “Palindromes,” seems just as mixed-up as you are. And that is a huge letdown.
After skewering society for its taboos and hypocrisies with his previous films — “Storytelling,” “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (one of his earliest and still his best) — Solondz’s aim this time isn’t as true. That lack of focus only serves to reveal his casting structure as a pretentious gimmick, and not the clever revelation it could have been.
Solondz says his point in having eight different people play the character of Aviva in a series of vignettes is a reflection of the title: that regardless of the changes we make in our lives, we are still essentially the same. Forward and backward, like a palindrome — like the name of the film’s emotionally needy, wayward heroine — we’re doomed to stagnation.
Such cynicism is to be expected from Solondz, who has made his name with unflinching depictions of sexual deviance and domestic cruelty in the most genteel of places: suburbia. (Aviva, by the way, is the cousin of Dawn Weiner, the put-upon junior high schooler from “Dollhouse,” who we learn has committed suicide at this film’s start.)
“Palindromes” features teen pregnancy (the character of Aviva, no matter who plays her, gets pregnant at 13 while fooling around with a family friend and wants desperately to be a mother); abortion (which Aviva’s mother, played by Ellen Barkin, forces her to have); child molestation (Aviva runs away from home and gets involved with a truck driver who has to be in his 40s); and the murder of abortion doctors.
But Solondz also mercilessly makes fun of members of the Christian right (an all-too easy target) while seeming simultaneously to embrace them. Fervent anti-abortion activists flail and fling themselves at Aviva (played with believable angst at this point by red-haired Hannah Freiman) as she and her mother make their way toward a suburban New Jersey clinic. Their behavior is so outrageous, it’s almost played for laughs.
Toward the end of Aviva’s adventure — when she’s portrayed with great vulnerability and sweetness by the rotund black actress Sharon Wilkins — she ends up being welcomed warmly into foster home run by the devout Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). It’s a multicultural Shangri-la where all the kids pitch in to do chores and everyone laughs heartily around the breakfast table at each other’s lame jokes.
Solondz apparently is trying to say something about the value of life — nearly all the foster children have disabilities, and Mama Sunshine tears up at the very thought of all the other kids who need help — yet he also ridicules his characters by having them perform as a “Partridge Family”-style singing group, with contemporary Christian lyrics and Backstreet Boy dance moves.
He can’t have it both ways and expect to connect with his audience, though it’s hard to tell whether that’s even his intention. The whole effort is very hit-and-miss, as you would expect from a film with this sort of fragmented structure.
At the same time, Solondz coaxes surprising moments of great heart from his eclectic cast members, many of whom had never acted in a film before. Besides Freiman and Wilkins, Shayna Levine is excellent as Aviva in a later segment, playing the character with a mix of awkwardness and blossoming poise. Alexander Brickel provides one of the few sources of pure goodness as Peter Paul, a bespectacled mensch who finds Aviva alone in the woods and brings her to Mama Sunshine’s house.
Leigh, who plays Aviva in the final section, gives the character a palpable sense of weariness at the end of the character’s journey, yet you truly feel as if you’re watching an insecure, 13-year-old girl — which Aviva is still supposed to be, because as the title suggests, she hasn’t really changed. And Barkin serves as the film’s sole source of stability, a much-needed river of wit and warmth flowing through this otherwise uneven endeavor.