Dir/scr: Todd Solondz.US. 2004. 99mins.

Sundance darling ToddSolondz' latest warped take on the American dream is an uneven film, half bigemotional roller coaster, half whimsical fable, that inhabits the Midwesternsuburban wastelands somewhere between the David Lynch Motel and the HarmonyKorine Five-and-Dime. The story of a 12-year-old Kansas girl who is determinedto have a baby, Palindromes is a step up from the gratuitous misanthropyof Storytelling (though it's still difficult to tell whether Solondzactually likes people).

After the bleak but resonanttragic register of Happiness, the director seems to be retreating intoeccentricity almost defiantly, as if to give the lie to those who thought thathe might "mature" into the mainstream one day. Palindromes' audiencewill thus be restricted to those who enjoy his queasy mix of fatalism, whimsyand out-and-out hilarious parody. It is a fairly culture-specific blend, andthe film may not play well outside of Anglo-Saxonia - except in verysophisticated, post-ironic arthouse circles.

The most obviously weirdthing about Palindromes is the fact that Aviva, the twelve-year-oldcentral character, is played by eight different actors, ranging in age from sixto Jennifer Jason Leigh. The director has declared that he was going for acumulative effect here, seeing if a number of variations on a character, fromthe infant to the obese, the white to the black, the female to the male (one ofthe actors is a boy) would actually turn out to be more sympathetic than asingle type.

It's an interestingexperiment, and we're grateful to Solondz for performing it: withoutrisk-takers like him, where would we be' But while it does add, a little, tothe skewed Alice In Wonderland quality of the exercise, all thisbaton-passing distracts from the story, and ends up feeling like too much of anintellectual game. The film may well have benefited from staying with one ofthe better Avivas, like 14-year-old Shayna Levine.

Childhood desires, adultshame and the stand-off between things getting better and things being scriptedto happen just the way they happen from day one are some of the overridingthemes of the film. Just beginning to sprout into puberty, Aviva (whose name isa palindrome - it reads the same in both directions) is determined to have ababy. When she manages to get impregnated by a sex-obsessed cousin, her mother(Ellen Barkin, on sterling tragicomic form) forces her to get an abortion -which turns, tragically, into a hysterectomy.

Unaware that she is nowsterile, Aviva (already into her fourth actor by this stage) decides to runaway from home. After a series of adventures - including a haunting, wordlesssequence, in which she floats down a river, Huck-Finn-style, on a toy boat -Aviva (by now a huge black woman) stumbles across the extended family of MamaSunshine, a Christian do-gooder with droopy glasses and a denim dress, whoadopts disabled children.

This sequence, by far thelongest in the film, contains some of Palindromes' funniest scenes, asthe film takes on the look, the stilted dialogue and the wooden acting of a bad1970s Christian TV series. Aviva's adopted brothers and sister say things like"Boy, that bacon sure tastes good!"; and when they cavort around in danceformation singing cheesy Christian rock, it is all one can do to stay in one'sseat.

But Aviva's quest is held upfor far too long, and the pure parody of the sequence tends to unbalance thefilm, which elsewhere achieves a curious mix of solemn and hilarious, abettedby Nathan Larson's contrapuntal soundtrack, which has the liltingly falseinnocence of a 1960s Roger Vadim sex comedy score. This is, after all, a filmabout a young girl whose body has been invaded, who has consenting sex witholder men, and who is prepared to condone a double murder: it is a long wayfrom the usual definition of comedy.

But Palindromes is a resoundingly original film; and it stays with us,like it or not, for a while after the lights go up.

Prod co: Extra Large Pictures
Int'l sales:
Celluloid Dreams
Derrick Tseng, Mike Ryan
Tom Richmond
Prod des:
Dave Doernberg
Mollie Goldstein, KevinMessman
Nathan Larson
Main cast:
Ellen Barkin, StephenAdly Guirgis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richard Masur, Debra Monk