2004 TIFF Update #8: "Where to Go from Here"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Thursday, September 16, 2004

It is the fate of most first-time directors to make second features. Often, in case of filmmakers whose debuts created a splash, the follow-up is a disappointment. From that reality comes the term "sophomore slump." Today, I'll focus on the new films from two of the most exciting directors to recently emerge from the American independent film movement. The first, Dylan Kidd, avoids the sophomore slump, although his second movie, P.S., doesn't have the same energy as his previous effort, Roger Dodger. The second, Todd Solondz, arrived on the scene in the mid-1990s with Welcome to the Dollhouse. He followed that with the wrenching Happiness, then tumbled back to Earth with Storytelling. Palindromes represents a step backwards for the New Jersey native, and is his least impressive effort to date.

I don't think critics are expected to notice breast size (we're supposed to be focused on more lofty concerns...), but, given the way in which Laura Linney's assets are diplayed during the course of P.S., it's impossible not to. In all fairness, she gives a compelling performance as well, but I'd like to know if there is a red-blooded male who isn't impressed by the whole package. But I digress...

P.S. is a half-mystery, half-romance about the relationship between Columbia admissions officer Louise Harrington (Linney) and an 18-year old would-be student, F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace). Although Louise's loneliness might be enough to feed the fires of any potential sexual liaison, there's extra fuel here. Scott looks, sounds, and paints like the long dead boyfriend of Louise's teen years, who also bore the name of "Scott Feinstadt." So the question Louise has to address is whether this is all a coincidence or whether something supernatural is going on. Could this Scott be her Scott reincarnated?

The central relationship between Louise and Scott works, because the actors sell it. The age difference is not ignored, although the apparent conflict of interests/abuse of power (an admissions officer sexually involved with someone desiring admission) is not, at least not in a meaningful manner. Kidd's dialogue lacks the crisp, ear-catching quality of what he penned for Roger Dodger. Here, it's more laid back and generic. There are three supporting characters. Peter (Gabriel Byrne) is Louise's ex-husband. Missy (Marcia Gay Harden) is a long-time friend. And there's also a brother (Paul Rudd) hanging around. The Rudd and Harden characters could easily have been excised without hurting the film's content or flow. (In fact, Missy is an annoyance.) It would, however, have been nice to see Byrne's role expanded. Outside of the two leads, his character is the most interesting, and his revelation that he had hundreds of affairs while married to Louise forces her to confront some harsh truths.

The mystical aspect of P.S. is not overplayed; this does not become a supernatural thriller. By wisely keeping his modern-day fairy tale grounded in reality, Kidd allows us to accept these two as human beings. The result is an intriguing and satisfying romance that may hold some appeal even for those who normally do not like films about affairs of the heart.

Palindromes, the fourth feature from Todd Solondz, makes me wonder whether this director only had two good films in him. A shallow, transparent satire/social commentary, Palindromes lives and dies on a gimmick. In an attempt to do something "artistic," Solondz uses eight different actresses to play his 12-year old protagonist, Aviva. The idea, I suppose, is to challenge the audience into looking beyond the body type and skin color, and to recognize that the core of an individual never changes. It's a juvenile, simplistic, and embarrassingly literal device, and it dooms any hope of character identification.

Setting aside Solondz's gimmick, we're left with a stale narrative that is short on insight and drama. There are occasional bursts of humor, and these quickly become the only reason to stick with the film. Solondz paints his supporting chracters with broad strokes and his message - that people's essential natures do not change - is presented so murkily tht he needs a charcter to give a speech to clarify things.

After an unsatisfying dalliance leaves Aviva pregnant, her mother (Ellen Barkin) and father (Richard Masur) decide that she's going to have an abortion, even though that's not what she wants. The operation is botched and she ends up unable to have children. Aviva then runs away from her New Jersey home and ends up living with a Christian "family" in Kansas. She becomes involved with a pedophile who brings her with him when he travels to New Jersey to execute an abortion doctor.

Palindromes transpires in the same universe as Solondz's first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse. In fact, it opens with the funeral of that movie's protagonist, Dawn Weiner. At its best, Palindromes evokes the earlier film. As written, Aviva is much like Dawn. But the trick casting interferes with our ability to get to know her. And the acting is widely variable. Some of the performers to play Aviva are just plain bad. Then there's the strange case of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Why is an actress in her 40s playing a girl 30 years her junior? Again, we're supposed to look past appearances... Solondz is making a point here! The writer/director should have thought this idea through a little better implementing it.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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