Pale and fidgety, Solondz is dressed in an ensemble of hyper-articulated geekery: piss-yellow Converse sneakers, heavy green glasses and green pants (on which he obsessively wipes his palms). Solondz stammers in a nasal Jersey twang during an interview at an Atlanta hotel. He sounds more like someone being interrogated than interviewed.
Maybe Solondz is just used to being on the defensive. "There are those who will tell you what a cruel, cynical, misanthropic, loathsome, horrible human being I am," Solondz says. "And I get no pleasure from hearing such terrible things. It is painful."
Solondz's films provoke strong responses that divide audiences into two categories: fans and angry villagers wielding sticks and torches. For some, he is a cold-hearted cynic scrutinizing the human race like bugs under a microscope. For others, he's an advocate for social misfits, a man who bothers to chronicle the experiences of society's most abject.
One thing's for sure, "ambivalence" is not the typical response to Solondz's films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling).
But that's the way Solondz likes it. It's that very ambiguity that forces audiences to reflect upon their own moral radar and come to their own conclusions, he says.
"I certainly don't go to movies to learn how to be a better person," Solondz says. "And I don't believe that going to movies makes anyone a better person. You can become more knowledgeable, but that doesn't make you better in a moral sense. And my films are, I think, deeply moral and there's no ambiguity about that. It's just a little tricky to read — to get at it — because I'm needling you. It's complacency that I can't stand."
Beginning with his breakout 1995 indie hit, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which portrayed an excruciatingly awkward seventh grader named Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), Solondz's films have been a prolonged confrontation with the bottom-scraping range of human cruelty. Solondz's subsequent films, Happiness and Storytelling, moved beyond individual portraiture to present a more damning ensemble of suburban grotesques, including pedophiles, depressives, overeaters, rapists and narcissists.
The storm clouds of that ironic distance part to some degree in Solondz's latest film, Palindromes, the story of a sexually exploited young girl. The sense of pity Solondz brought to despairing, luckless Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse returns with a vengeance in this semi-sequel centered on Dawn's cousin Aviva, an emotionally flatline teenager.
In the film's most radical gesture, eight different actors portray Aviva at different moments in the film, including an obese black woman, a scrawny androgynous boy and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The tactic affirms that this story of sexual exploitation is not just one girl's story, but could be claimed by many.
Aviva has a burning, irrational desire to have a child.
"I think a girl this age, she imagines that having a baby will provide the kind of unconditional love that she's not getting from her family, friends and so forth," says Solondz. "It makes this quest for love a very, very kind of poignant thing."
Aviva gets knocked up by a crude boy in a grim deflowering that unfolds beneath a cathedral of porn centerfolds gazing down on the young lovers.
But fate and a meddling mother (Ellen Barkin) conspire to end Aviva's pregnancy. Forced by her mother to undergo a ruinous abortion, Aviva spends the rest of the film as an existential wanderer, latching onto anyone who promises to love her and bequeath her his sperm.
"I describe all my movies to some extent as 'sad comedies,'" Solondz says. "But this is definitely the saddest one of all. For all the political and moral charge and complications of the film, it is at heart a very simple story of a young girl, 13 years old, who wants to be a mom."
Unrelenting in its harsh view of life, and the people who get caught up like flotsam in its churning current, Palindromes is also about as warm and fuzzy as Solondz is likely to get.