Ugly but Brave

Todd Solondz's latest succeeds because of the script and plot, but everyone will find some aspect of the film disagreeable

If I had to pick the key trait of modern cinema, I'd say it was cowardice. With the exception of Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, almost every big name in the movie business is such an incredible wussy that they actually run, screaming and wetting themselves, at the sight of a focus group. That's why Gibson and Moore were ignored at this year's Oscar ceremony. They refused to be good little scaredy-cats and make movies that only offended in the safest, most pre-approved way possible.

So the first thing to note about Todd Solondz is that he's not a coward. He also isn't interested in making pretty movies. Having scratched "pandering" and "pleasing to the eye" off his resume, he's probably reduced his audience to about 10 people, three of whom are Todd and the two homunculi he keeps in tiny test tubes in his pocket.

And even the homunculi would probably think that Mr. Solondz's latest film, Palindromes, was one of the most intentionally ugly movies ever made. It has almost no pretty images, no pretty faces, and no pretty dialogue. Even the sets are carefully chosen to be aesthetic impoverished. One shot shows a house on the top of a grassy hill. It would be something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, if it weren't for the fact that the house is a boxy monstrosity with only three windows on its enormous, vinyl-sided walls. The house isn't ugly because it's decrepit or rundown: Rather, it's ugly because, like Palindromes the movie, it was designed that way.

Solondz used intentionally ugly sets in his earlier film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, but there, the shag carpeting and patterned sofas seemed campy. Here, there's no pleasure in the lifeless, factory fresh interiors.

Even more impressive than Solondz's use of unappealing sets is that he chose to cast visually unappealing actors. Maybe you can get away with drab backgrounds, but lack of personal prettiness is rightly considered the kiss of death in every aspect of the entertainment business.

But then I'm not sure Palindromes is really meant to be entertaining, though it's certainly never boring. "Entertainment" generally implies some sort of pleasant diversion, whereas Palindromes is the story of a 13-year-old girl who gets pregnant, is coerced into an abortion, and then falls in love with a child molester and murderer.

In spite of that, the most talked-about aspect of Palindromes is the casting for the role of Aviva, the 13-year-old protagonist. She is played by eight different actors, thought not all at the same time.

Solondz has said that many people had told him that they identified with the main character in his earlier film Welcome to the Dollhouse, and he thought that was interesting. So he decided to alter the visual appearance of the main character in this film to see if people would be more or less likely to identify with her.

Thus, young Aviva transforms from a pudgy young white girl to an enormously obese black teenager to a slender boy and, ultimately, to a 42-year-old woman, while still ostensibly being the same character.

There's some self-conscious explication of this in the dialogue of a young man who has been (perhaps falsely) accused of child molestation. He tells Aviva that no matter how much we change on the outside, we're still the same inside. Solondz does his best to express this in the direction of the actors who play Aviva; they all act pretty much the same.

But the tremendously different bodies they inhabit radically alter the meaning of their behavior, so while the quiet, mousy voice of Aviva seems to indicate youth and immaturity in a baby-faced girl, it comes across as creepy and surreal in an old woman, and seems like the result of some sort malady in an enormous teenager.

It's a nice trick, but it's hardly the most interesting thing about the movie. Rather, what makes Palindromes work are the script and plot. Solondz's dialogue is horrifying, bizarre and convincing, as when a woman describes having named her unborn baby and then aborted it. "I never felt so good," she says, "as I did after I got rid of that little Henry."

And the story is pretty much a condemnation of everything that everyone in America stands for. If you're pro-choice or pro-life, there's a good chance you'll find something to be offended by here. If you're secular or religious, expect your basic beliefs to be ridiculed. And if you support individuality over conformity, or the opposite, you'll certainly find something to disagree with in Palindromes.

Perhaps most disagreeable is the character of Aviva. Unlike the average Hollywood anti-hero, she's not unlikable because she has a moral code that strongly diverges from the mainstream. Rather, she's unlikable because of her lack of character, and to make someone who lacks character into your central character is an aesthetically and philosophically interesting move.

It's probably not a commercially wise move, though, and I can't imagine any focus group giving this film the thumbs up, unless that group was composed of John Waters, Matthew Barney and the ghost of John Cassavetes. But if that's the focus group you'd want to be part of, then I'd suggest checking out Palindromes. At the very least, you'll see something that isn't an exercise in cowardice.