May 4, 2005 at 12:00 am

Todd Solondz probably doesn’t like you very much. If you’re a fan of his film Welcome to the Dollhouse, he probably likes you even less. How else to explain the brutal and mean-spirited fate he exacts on Dawn Wiener, the protagonist of Dollhouse, in the first moments of Palindromes?

The writer-director seems to spit in the face of his admirers, daring them to embrace his ever-bleaker view of humanity. One thing is certain: Solondz is unbiased in his misanthropy and he despises everyone equally, exhibiting contempt for both his characters and his audiences.

Palindromes methodically picks at the festering scabs that cover suburban life while reveling in the director’s favorite subjects: sexual predators, childhood alienation and parental hypocrisy. In Solondz’s world, all families are hideously dysfunctional, all adults are manipulating liars, and no one is to be trusted; only children are pure, and that’s why they become targets or naive puppets.

The story follows the grotesque misadventures of Aviva, a 13-year-old girl who yearns to have babies, lots and lots of babies. She fulfills every suburban mom’s nightmare by becoming pregnant, and is then forced to have an abortion by her self-absorbed and condescendingly “reasonable” mother (Ellen Barkin). After that, Aviva runs away from home, determined to get pregnant again. She falls in with a conflicted pedophile trucker and then, a happy-faced Christian family providing sanctuary for disabled children while nurturing anti-abortion assassins.

Played by six different actresses of varying age, race, and body type (not to mention, a young boy in one scene), Aviva becomes the tortured embodiment of a brutalized female experience. Solondz exposes her to unprovoked cruelty and unrelenting mendacity. Her journey is filled with both violence and tragedy and yet she learns nothing from it. Aviva ends up where she began: frustratingly meek and desperately needy.

Solondz’s point, repeated ad nauseam, is that mankind is incapable of rising above its limitations. There’s no learning from one’s mistakes, no understanding of anything outside one’s own selfish reality. Black, white, fat, thin, male, female — it doesn’t matter. We’re all equally fucked.

Despite its limitations, the film still manages to cast an oddly powerful spell. Its profane imagery and haunting sound track elicit a certain morbid curiosity. The scenes where Aviva is played by Sharon Wilkins (an obese black woman) are as unsettling as they are poetic, underscoring the character’s vulnerability and awkwardness.

The movie also scores points with its venomously deadpan humor. Barkin delivers a wickedly funny lecture about abortion, and the Christian family’s disabled castaways are mercilessly parodied, crooning in a pop group that delivers boy-band swagger with 700 Club lyrics.

Solondz is clearly a talented and fiercely independent filmmaker, and it’s to his credit that Palindromes tackles so many distasteful and sensationalistic topics without truly offending the audience. He gives the story a tranquil, almost catatonic quality that softens the most transgressive moments but also, unfortunately, robs the film of any real drama. By adhering to his mantra that we all end up where we began, the director delivers a stale narrative that offers no insight and instead strikes the same unpleasant note over and over again.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].