Peopled by Todd Solondz’s usual bestiary of the dispossessed, Palindromes begins at a funeral for Dawn Wiener, the unhappy antiheroine of Welcome to the Dollhouse, with a camera trained on a star of David on the menorah behind her coffin. From there, we meet his new antiheroine, cousin Aviva, a 13-year-old who gets pregnant by a peer, has an abortion, runs away, has sex with an adult, is embraced by a pro-life Evangelical foster family, goes on a mission to kill one Dr. Fleischer (“You know what Fleischer means? Butcher,” she overhears), and returns home, despondent and guileless as ever.
The signifiers of identity are squirmworthy. The younger characters lack nuance and seem to imply some kind of link between being a loser and being a Jew. The older ones—Aviva’s mother, for example, played by Ellen Barkin—cloak their forcefulness behind supposed good intention and seem hard-pressed to show the barest hint of compassion.
But for all their sullenness, Solondz’s Jews are less offensively farcical than the folks he depicts on the opposite extreme, who have compassion in spades. Mama Sunshine, a jumper-wearing children’s advocate who takes in a variously-disabled bunch of unwanteds, feeds her charges “Jesus’ Tears” cookies and oversees a musical number that tips its hat to School of Rock and The Partridge Family. Those occasional jokes, though, don’t alleviate the film’s unsettling feeling. Somewhere between glib and disdainful, it serves up extraordinary, brutal material as part of one long gag.
While Solondz never really posits that one system is better than another, he shows a stark dichotomy—despair in the prototypical Jewish home and suspended doubt in the Christian one. It’s a vision without complexity, which may mirror literal understandings of religion, but bears no likeness to reality.