Director Todd Solondz speaks his peace in ‘Wartime’

Al Alexander

On a Friday night in Santa Monica last March, an overwhelmed Gabourey Sidibe stood before a room full of Hollywood titans clutching the Independent Spirit Award she had just won for her searing performance in “Precious.”

As she began her acceptance speech, most expected her to thank someone like Meryl, Jack or Denzel for giving her the inspiration to pursue acting. Instead, it was 11-year-old Dawn Wiener, a fictional character, who, like herself, was marginalized by society largely due to her physical appearance.

Although she didn’t mention Dawn by name, it was clear what was meant when she said seeing “Welcome to the Dollhouse” as a child convinced her that you needn’t look like Halle Berry to achieve success.

When I mentioned this deeply poignant moment to “Dollhouse’s” writer-director, Todd Solondz, during his appearance at the Boston Independent Film Festival in April, he was visibly moved, and a little embarrassed that it was the first time he had heard about Sidibe’s shout-out.

“It’s very gratifying,” Solondz said with the sincerest of modesty. “You write something and you never know to what extent it will communicate to people outside of your little circle. So I feel very touched and lucky.”

Understandable, given how words of kindness stand in sharp contrast to the vitriolic rants of his critics, who accuse him of everything from being sympathetic toward pedophiles to being a misanthropic provocateur out to get a rise by exposing his audiences to the most unpleasant aspects of human behavior in movies like “Happiness,” “Palindromes” and Storytelling.”

“As sad, sorrowful and mournful as some of these films may be, they are also comedies,” Solondz rightly points out. But not everyone is laughing.

“It’s the way in which they are read and the way they are parsed really varies so much and it’s not something I can control,” said Solondz, sounding more cerebral than defensive. “I think it’s a question of sensibility. And I also think it’s a question of open-mindedness.

“What others might find depressing is invigorating and revitalizing for me. And what others believe to be uplifting, I might find banal. So you have to know how to read what people are saying and what motivates them.

“Look, I have a weak character. When people say something nice, I feel better, and when they say something not nice, I feel worse. I can’t (allow myself to) take it personally.”

That’s good, because his critics are extracting their claws yet again in defiance to his latest endeavor, “Life During Wartime,” a quasi-sequel to his polarizing 1998 masterpiece, “Happiness,” about a dysfunctional New Jersey family and its many trials and tribulations.

I say “quasi” because Solondz has replaced every member of the original cast and, in some cases, altered their back stories to fit his agenda, which is to use his characters as metaphors for all that is evil, and all that is good, in our post-9/11 society.

“It’s a much more politically overt film than ‘Happiness’ was,” said Solondz, who is less opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than he is angered by the way they were packaged and sold. “What interests me is how hard our country worked to insulate the reality of the war from the people who live here.

“Even now, with a different president, we’re still a country at war, and still very insulated. There’s no draft, so you now have a very discreet segment of society going off to war. And so that segment is separate from so many of us, further distancing us from the realities.”

That insularity is cleverly illustrated in a family that equates openness to a dreaded disease. But if your clan included a pedophile, an obscene phone caller and Keanu Reeves’ ex-girlfriend, you’d want to be discreet, too.

Add to that an 11-year-old boy just learning that rumors of his disgraced father’s demise are untrue, and a 7-year-old girl swallowing anti-depressants like candy, and suddenly the term “happiness” almost seems like a cruel joke. Which led me to ask Solondz if the concept of happiness truly exists.

“Of course it does, it’s written in the Constitution,” he quipped. “It’s an elusive thing and it’s a very transient thing, but it gives a kind of motivation to so many of our lives. But how do we get there? And when we do get there, it vanishes before we fully appreciate it.

“You have to learn to somehow be happy with what you have as opposed to what you don’t,” he added. “Being human, we’re all weak and plagued by all sorts of desires. It’s a struggle. Sometimes we will succeed at achieving it and sometimes not. But that’s what makes life compelling.”

Forgiveness is another equally elusive trait in “Life During Wartime,” as several characters struggle with the notion. But where does one draw the line, Solondz wonders.

“You can say ‘I’m sorry’ only so many times before it loses all meaning,” he said. “And to what extent to we extend it? Let’s say you’re a parent and your daughter has been raped and murdered. Some parents of a certain religious conviction may in fact forgive the perpetrator, but another family without these convictions may seek vengeance. Both are valid responses, as far as I’m concerned.”

So far, reaction to “Life During Wartime” has been mixed. But that’s nothing new for Solondz, who leaves no room for compromise. That means his films will be made his way, on his terms, with absolutely no variances from the script. Period.

Some call that artistic integrity, while others may term it stubbornness. Either way, his film career hasn’t been anything close to what you’d call financially rewarding. Which is why he supplements his income teaching in the graduate film program at New York University. And while he loves his day job, Solondz wishes he could make movies full time, like his counterparts in Europe and other countries where government subsidized arts programs exist.

“If (iconic French director) Claire Denis lived in the United States, she could never have the career she does. But because she is very valued in France, she doesn’t have to worry about the market the way I do.”

As a filmmaker in the United States, “you have to be resourceful, you have to be clever and you have to be lucky.”

He forgot to add, “be an inspiration.” But he now has Gabourey Sidibe to say it for him.

Patriout Ledger writer Al Alexander may be reached at aalexander@ledger.com.