Suburban-spawned urban hipsters harbor a famous animus for suburbia. Call it the father-killing side of the Oedipal impulse whose mother-loving component is the type of nostalgia enacted in obsessive conversation about 1980s trivia or trophy dog ownership by dwellers of closet-size apartments. Of course, if the suburbs weren’t so stifling, misfit youths wouldn’t grow up to be hipsters. Plus a dark secret nags every shaggy-haired twentysomething in a nylon jacket: One day you will marry, breed, button up, bloat, and move back. Of late this holds even if you are gay.
The other option: stay in town and voíla, the aging hipster. Some such persevering characters may be rewarded with the elusive prize of artistic viability, or even success. This brings us to Todd Solondz, whose acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) commenced a decade-long onscreen revenge fantasy against his native New Jersey. Dollhouse charmed audiences with the hormone-induced plight of the sympathetically pathetic Dawn Weiner. Happiness (1998), with its daddy-as-serial-rapist-of-Timmy’s-little-friends plotline, offered less that could be called endearing, but it was smart as a taboo-busting (shots of projectile ejaculate) sitcom parody. In Storytelling (2001) Solondz took his first turn toward the vaguely political—a black writing professor sodomizing a queasy and intoxicated white female student; a fired immigrant housekeeper bombing her former employers’ home; gay teen oral sex to the tune of Belle and Sebastian’s “The State That I Am In.”
One man’s normalcy is another’s spiritual desolation, subdivided, atomized and overexposed to television. Desperate aspirations to pop cultural fame plague Solondz’s outcasts. They start garage bands, write folk songs, and daydream about hosting late night TV. In this they are akin to the slackers of fellow New Jerseyan Kevin Smith, but you get the sense that Smith is pulling for his losers while Solondz delights in envisioning for his a state of permanent dread.
Which was darkly entertaining, at first, yet as his films become more political they turn less funny and less forgivable. Casting Ward Cleaver as a pedophile in Happiness was in its way revelatory, unsettling satire that anticipated Andrew Jarecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003), a film Solondz must wish he had made. But to portray the suburbs as a realm populated mostly by child molesters, incipient child molesters, molestation victims, and juveniles yearning to molest each other and be molested—that is, in the manner of Palindromes—is to steer wide of satire and enter into fraud. In Dollhouse and Happiness Solondz scrubbed John Hughes’s saccharine coating off of suburban reality and applied a bitter mix of bile and semen. Palindromes subtracts the reality, and we are awash in bodily fluids.
I counted two funny jokes in the film. One is about a girl who ran away from a Christian home for crippled children. She didn’t get very far because she was legless. The other is uttered by a truck driver and reformed sex offender (Stephen Adly-Guirgis). The bumbling agent of an evangelical pro-life conspiracy, he is about to be caught for murdering an abortion doctor and killing the doctor’s daughter with a stray bullet. (He has also been buggering a 13-year-old hitchhiker.) Banging his head against a wall, he asks, “How many times do I have to be reborn?” The police gun him down before we have the chance to find out. Otherwise, Solondz’s obtuse morality play lacks the sort of whimsy that might have rendered it amusing, if not quite cogent. He has always directed his actors, many of them amateurs, to walk a line between deadpan delivery and what could only be called bad acting. Much of the latter in Palindromes is committed by the rusty Ellen Barkin, as a suburban housewife and mother. She doesn’t have much to work with, as Solondz is more than ever focused on propelling a plot rather than writing unstilted lines.
The film, as it rubs a trembling hand over the abortion debate, extends Solondz’s recent groping toward topicality. As the impish 45-year-old director told an audience after the opening of the film at New York’s Angelika Theater, “I think the movie can be seen as more sympathetic to the conservative side than to the liberals. I’m crueler to the liberals because that’s where I come from.” Just what the nation has been waiting for: the hipster anti-choice movement.
The plot is a quest, or a flight, taken up by one Aviva. Or rather eight Avivas, portrayed by seven actresses of various body weights and ethnicities as well as one effeminate male. Aviva is a 13-year-old girl filled with an singularly earnest and unshakable desire for maternity—“I wanna have a baby” she incants. Unlike her cousin Dawn Weiner, whose funeral—cause of death: suicide (and she was pregnant)—kicks off Palindromes, Aviva isn’t afflicted with the stirrings of sexual desire. It seems unnecessary to point out that teen pregnancy occurs in America not because thirteen-year-old girls suddenly hear their biological clocks ticking, but because teenagers can be horny and reckless. So Aviva is either an imbecile or a concept, invented by the auteur as a means of exploring his own incoherent politics. She is incarnated by the rotating cast to convey the effect of an “everyman.” Retarding the everyman is a common technique—see the nitwit blockbuster Forrest Gump (1994)—but that doesn’t make it any less of a sham.
When Aviva gets knocked up by a lumpy family friend, her scandalized mother (Barkin) warns that pregnancies of young mothers often yield defective offspring, and takes a reluctant Aviva to an abortion clinic. The procedure goes awry, and the doctor performs a hysterectomy. Aviva, who is never told what went wrong, persists in her maternal delusion, and runs away from New Jersey to somewhere in the Midwest.
She awakes by a stream in the form of an obese black woman (Sharon Wilkins). A young boy finds her and leads her to the home of Mama Sunshine (Debra Funk), Solondz’s counterpoint to the liberal (or at least pro-choice) New Jersey suburbs. Mama Sunshine is a fundamentalist Christian who keeps a home for a dozen adopted children suffering a variety of disabilities. The children are happy and get along well with each other, even if their Jesus talk smacks of brainwashing. In a signature Solondz touch, the inmates have formed a devotional teenybopper group. In a comic turn that almost works, we see them rehearsing in the garage, and their music, unlike that of past Solondz pop star manqués, is eerily professional. Every spring they go on tour, and they once even performed on The 700 Club. There is, of course, a dark basement beneath this house of charity. There Mama Sunshine’s husband (Walter Bobbie) is conspiring to kill abortion doctors.
Solondz’s message is less a complex than a confused reading of the red state/blue state myth, and he delivers it about as evenhandedly as the sinister David Brooks. Suburban Northeastern liberals—Aviva’s family—are crypto-fascist infanticidal hypocrites, while conservatives like Mama Sunshine are the truly compassionate ones, if a bit psychotic in the application of their moral absolutism. And hey, maybe the doctor deserves it—he mangled Aviva’s pipes, after all. By the time Solondz brings us and Aviva to a dump to look at a discarded fetus in a plastic bag, he has carried his suburb-hating two movies too far from the schoolyard and into political neverland. This is a shame, because the culture of Britney and Mean Girls (2004) could use the sort of slap from Solondz that woke us from our Home Alone hangover a decade ago.
Our poor hipster auteurs—they seem destined to spend their careers excising the ghosts of suburban childhoods. Solondz’s dystopias mirror the genteel, urbane fantasy prep schools and townhouses of Wes Anderson, who in Bottle Rocket (1996) began trying to stylize his way out of suburban banality. More troubling, as Solondz exposed in one of the few apt pieces of mockery in Storytelling, are the documentarians. They set out from the cities to gape in smug bafflement at the quirkiness of the hicks and the delusions of the drones. Michael Moore, thankfully, has aimed this style at actual bad guys, but its less noble impulses are on display in films like Spellbound (2002), American Movie (1999), and Hands on a Hard Body (1997). Measures are taken to establish sympathy in point of view, but a perverse sort of sneering sparks the thrills. And it’s all so real.
For better or worse, American reality is pervasively suburban, and the past century’s literature mined this condition richly. The last big lie in Palindromes comes in the form of a speech delivered by Dawn’s brother Mark Weiner (the film is a sequel of sorts). He lectures Aviva, boomeranged home from her odyssey, on the immutability of individual human character. The cheerful will always be cheerful, he says, and the depressives forever depressed. Experience never transforms us. Once a dork, forever a dork, while the jocks grow up to dominate the barracks or the boardroom. This begs for refutation. I’ve always thought the best thing about the suburbs is that you can leave—leave for good. You can climb in a car or on a bus, get on the highway (there wouldn’t be suburbs without them), and you can drive to the city. Nobody, after all, was ever born a hipster.