Towelhead

by Tim Grierson

Adapted and directed by Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “American Beauty,” “Towelhead” plays like a kinkier, less-focused riff on the themes that his previous film pursued with more verve and rigor.

As its provocative title indicates, the comedy-drama “Towelhead” wants to push buttons–a lot of them. Based on Alicia Erian's debut 2005 novel, this tale of a 13-year-old Arab-American girl in the midst of her sexual awakening in suburban Houston boasts some strong performances but too often goes for easy shock over thoughtful analysis.

Set during the time leading up to the 1991 Gulf War, the film stars newcomer Summer Bishil as Jasira, a teenage girl sent to live with her Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) in Houston by her mother Gail (Maria Bello). Because of Rifat's strict parenting, he and Jasira clash, especially when it comes to her wardrobe and her choice of friends. But Rifat cant stop puberty: Jasira begins to become sexually aware, aroused by the naked women in nude magazines and drawn to Thomas (Eugene Jones), an African-American student who seems keen on taking her virginity. Rifat forbids her from socializing with Thomas, his objection being that he doesnt trust blacks.

At the same time, Jasira catches the eye of Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), her Army reservist neighbor who can't control his attraction for this young girl. Rifat dismisses Vuoso as just another stupid Texas bigot, having no idea about the man's romantic interest in his daughter. But after an emotionally intense encounter with Vuoso, Jasira must lie more and more to her father, which only stirs his suspicions that shes hiding something from him. Unsure of where to turn, she is befriended by Melina (Toni Collette), a kindly neighbor who offers Jasira a safe haven during this troubling time.

“Towelhead” represents Alan Ball's feature directing debut after his stint creating and executive producing the acclaimed HBO drama “Six Feet Under.” Working from Alicia Erian's novel, Ball has chosen subject matter to which he has some affinity. Both “Six Feet Under” and the script for “American Beauty” dealt largely with families, dissecting the strains and secrets under their placid surface. In addition, “Towelhead” touches on questions of intolerance and distrust, recalling the quiet animosity between the different families in “American Beauty.”

When “American Beauty” came out in 1999, some critics complained that the film wasn't nearly as startling in its depiction of the hypocrisy eating away at picket-fence American life as other movies from the era, such as director Todd Solondz's “Happiness.” As if to compensate, Ball revisits the same subject matter but in a much kinkier way this time, specifically evoking the troubling subplot in “Happiness” about a pedophilic father with his own film's courtship between the adult Vuoso and the 13-year-old Jasira. And without going into graphic detail, suffice it to say that Ball dramatizes Jasira's sexual awakening in matter-of-factly explicit terms, including scenes of masturbation and copulation.

Another film about suburban unhappiness, director Ang Lee's “The Ice Storm,” also investigated the sexual curiosity of adolescents, so the subject matter of “Towelhead” isn't by itself shocking. But Ball's treatment of this material often feels needlessly abrasive and glibly scandalous, trying to elicit a response from the audience rather than treating Jasira's difficult transition with thoughtfulness or insight.

As Jasira, Summer Bishil could be described as fearless for what she goes through in “Towelhead,” but the performance doesn't feel particularly revelatory. This young girl is meant to be our entryway into the story, showing how bigotry and leering male suitors wreak havoc on her as shes simultaneously trying to deal with her hormones, but instead of steering the character through her coming of age, Bishil feels pushed around by the narrative. It's hard to sympathize with her plight when shes not an engaging presence.

Interestingly, the movie's two best performances come from the actors playing the most despicable characters. Playing a judgmental, sexist, racist Lebanese father who runs a tight ship at home, Peter Macdissi (who was Olivier Castro-Staal on “Six Feet Under”) manages to make Rifat both insufferable and consistently funny. Ball sometimes crudely subverts cultural stereotypes to show the fallibility of all people, no matter their ethnic roots, but Macdissi's humane portrayal helps elevate Ball's cheap provocations. Rifat exhibits some of the negative qualities attributed to conservative men of the Middle East, but while he's a reprehensible man in certain ways, the undercurrents of loneliness and low self-esteem within the performance make him oddly sympathetic no matter how badly he treats Jasira.

Aaron Eckhart also nicely balances the stereotypes of his intolerant Texan reservist with a genuine kindness, resulting in a flawed, prejudiced man who sees the danger in his romantic advances but can't stop himself. In many of his roles, Eckhart embodies a sense of normalcy thats undercut by an inner darkness, and that juxtaposition is on display in his role as Mr. Vuoso. While some will instantly detest his character for what he does in “Towelhead,” the commitment to the performance, and the commitment to show an overpowering sexual sickness in a seemingly regular guy, is without question.

It's a shame, then, that with two strong central performances, “Towelhead” isn't better than it is. While his leading men dig deep, Ball too often stays on the surface, content to shock with sexual frankness and casual bigotry. But the problem is that the sexual material never feels particularly titillating or dangerous, and the racism Jasira faces at her school doesn't have the power or ugliness that real-life incidents carry with them. “Towelhead” is an audacious movie meant to stir up emotions, but it mistakes the simple airing of taboo topics for an interesting perspective on those topics.

Those who object to this film's techniques will undoubtedly be accused of being unable to handle the uncomfortable realities “Towelhead” exposes. But by flaunting outrageousness, it's Ball who seems ill-equipped to deal intelligently with what he's put on the screen.

Credits

Running time: 116 minutes

Director: Alan Ball
Production companies: Indian Paintbrush, This Is That Productions, Your Face Goes Here Entertainment
US distribution: Warner Independent Pictures
Producers: Ted Hope, Alan Ball
Executive producers: Anne Carey, Peggy Rajski
Screenplay: Alan Ball, based on the novel by Alicia Erian
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Editor: Andy Keir
Production design: James Chinlund
Music: Thomas Newman

Cast

Aaron Eckhart (Mr. Vuoso)
Toni Collette (Melina)
Maria Bello (Gail)
Peter Macdissi (Rifat)
Summer Bishil (Jasira)
Eugene Jones (Thomas)
Chase Ellison (Zack)