Towelhead by Alan Ball

Few stories have depicted with such honesty and humor what its like to be a girl in that moment of transformation from a child to budding womanhood in all its biological messiness and intoxicating moments of magic and terror.

Its this rare depiction of adolescence that brought Alicia Erians novel “Towelhead” to the fore. Erian managed to write about a young American girl of partial Middle Eastern descent struggling with the tricky problems of race and identity–amid the disquieting context of the first Gulf War–along with the intense experience of growing up in a fast-paced, hypersexualized world without any clear rules.

When Ball began to think of doing a feature his agent sent him “Towelhead.” From the minute he cracked the unpublished manuscript, the story struck Ball as both startlingly truthful and cinematic. I read it over a weekend and fell in love with the world and the characters, he recalls. I found so many things about it compelling. It took me to so many places I didnt expect. By turns, I thought it was horrifying, hilarious, touching, ugly and at the same time, wonderful and liberating. It was everything I look for in a story I was drawn to the political aspects of the book and the humor of the book, which was so real and keenly observed.

Then, there was the books unflinching, head-on look at the stark realities of teenage sexuality both the thrill of discovering it in all its ecstasy and intoxicating influence and the danger of it being taken advantage of by adults who should know better. Ball was enamored with Erians spirited, multi-hued take on a subject that is usually approached with unremitting gravity and circumspection.

Usually when you read a story about a young girl who undergoes any sort of sexual abuse or assault, the implication at the end is always that shes damaged for life. But its such a statistically common experience for so many young women (and young men) that I found it truly refreshing that Jasira is not ruined by what she goes through, but that she comes out of the experience more powerful, with a healthy sense of who she is and with her own healthy sexuality very much intact, Ball says. In that way, her story is really revolutionary and quite inspiring. I loved the unashamed exploration of adolescent sexuality from so many different perspectives. Under tough circumstances and in the face of all these men, from Mr. Vuoso to Rifat to Thomas, who each objectify her in their own ways Jasira still begins to carve out her identity on her own terms.

Macdissi offers, The message is that we do have a choice. Jasira doesnt surrender to self-pity. That is heroic, I think, and its done in a very non-sentimental way its not mockish at all and thats what was attractive about the book for me because she doesnt fall into self-pity. Whereas with most movies we see characters like that we feel so sorry for them and I think TOWELHEAD describes the characters and the story in a way thats very real. The more real it is, the more universal it is. A lot of people have gone through similar experiences and they came out strong. I dont understand why, in movies sometimes, we see the opposite: is it to manipulate the audience Because we do survive things. Im a person who came from a war-torn country and I did survive. It was extremely traumatic, but we do survive and we do get better and we do learn and we do move on.

After getting Erians blessing in early meetings that made it clear they were both on the same page, Ball began his adaptation, which is quite faithful to the novels dialogue and structure. Despite the fact that the story is told entirely from the very particular point of view a 13 year-old Arab-American girl one Ball himself clearly has never experienced he says that Erians prose was his primary guide. I felt like the point of view of the novel was so clear I kept as much of it as I could, he explains. Alicia captured so many perfect little moments that really show the narcissism of Jasiras parents, the loneliness of being 13 and the self-loathing of Mr. Vuoso. As I wrote, I never thought of myself as a man writing from a 13 year-old girls point of view but rather, as a writer creating a screenplay from a story that truly evoked a 13 year-old girls point-of-view. I tried to honor that the whole way through.

Like Erian before him, Ball refused to shy away from the often hard-to-handle nature of changing adolescent bodies, explaining he doesnt really find such secretly commonplace things all that daring. I mean how many movies do we see where people get beheaded or dismembered, and people are afraid of seeing a tampon he muses. I believe we live in a culture that wants to unnecessarily sanitize sexuality and biology and I fought for the fact that we should see this stuff because its real.

But when it came to handling Jasiras sexual encounters, Ball tried to straddle a subtler, razor-thin line between being as brave and honest as Erian without dipping into the visually lurid. For me, the biggest challenge in adapting the book was definitely finding the best ways to reveal a true sense of Jasiras sexual awakening without attaching it to particular acts or body parts, he notes. This is where Ball diverged into his own creative flourishes on the story, forging Jasiras developing view of sexuality in the form of brightly lit fantasies of giggling Playboy Bunnies romping with carefree abandon. Her fantasies were inspired by this kind of innocent idea of a naked woman running around completely happy in her nakedness before she realizes all the complications of sex, he explains. In Jasiras mind, theres this kind of magical world where women are appreciated for being beautiful and fun without any real cost.

He also worked to keep the scenes between Jasira and Mr. Vuoso palpably real and charged without becoming explicit. I noted in the screenplay that we would be focusing on characters faces during these scenes, because that was what I was really interested in the emotions, rather than what might be going on with specific body parts, he explains. I always felt if those scenes were too explicit it would become about that and detract from the more important emotional weight of whats going on.