2008, R, 124 min. Directed by Alan Ball. Starring Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Peter Macdissi, Maria Bello, Matt Letscher, Eugene Jones.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 26, 2008
“You’re beautiful just the way you are,” says her mother’s boyfriend as he’s about to shave 13-year-old Jasira’s pubic hair. Already there are mixed messages between words and deeds, and the confused but anxious-to-be-appreciated girl stands in her bathroom and stares into the distance. That’s the opening sequence of Towelhead, a movie guaranteed to discomfit and dismay, though the narrative’s acute observations are also leavened with humorous touches. Based on Alicia Erian’s 2005 novel, Towelhead will not appeal to all viewers with its dangerous plunge into the awkwardness of adolescent discovery of sexuality and self-identity. It’s a minefield out there, and it doesn’t help that Towelhead is populated with a rash of unconscionable adults and epithet-tossing kids. At times, the film’s sexual predation recalls the discomfiture provoked by Todd Solondz in Happiness, but Towelhead tells the story from the young girl’s perspective and, in the process, pinpoints the realistic confusion that comes from trying to make sense of our society’s conflicting signals about a woman’s desirability. The film marks Ball’s feature-directing debut, after penning the Oscar-winning script for American Beauty and creating HBO’s eccentric Six Feet Under. Personally, I have never been too enthusiastic about either of those acclaimed projects, and though Towelhead’s plot may sound similar to American Beauty, Ball’s maintenance of the focus on the young girl rather than the adults in the story makes all the difference. Towelhead also finds Ball dialing down the quirk factor that usually dominates his work. Jasira Maroun (a startlingly good Bishil, who was 18 at the time of the filming) is half Caucasian and half Lebanese, which only adds to her identity issues, especially since the story is set during the first Gulf war. After the shaving incident in the film’s opening, her mother (Bello) sends Jasira away to live with her father, Rifat (Macdissi), a Lebanese Christian who lives in Houston and works at NASA. He, too, is a sea of contradictions, happy in the American world but holding conservative ties to his traditional world. He slaps Jasira when she come down to breakfast in shorts her first morning there, and will not allow her to use tampons or date a black boy, but he is utterly without discretion in his relationship with his own girlfriend. Then there are the Vuosos, the Marouns' neighbors at the end of their suburban cul-de-sac. Jasira discovers a stash of skin mags belonging to Mr. Vuoso (Eckhart) while babysitting his annoying son (who hurls the title epithet in her direction). She also innocently experiences her first orgasm while perusing them, after which she becomes intrigued by the man, who ultimately takes advantage of her natural curiosity. Also in the mix is another neighbor (Collette), a very pregnant woman who suspects something untoward is happening (indeed, it's called statutory rape) and invites Jasira to visit in her home and gives her a copy of a book resembling Our Bodies, Ourselves. The story builds to a feverish pitch and then never reaches a satisfactory conclusion. But while it’s onscreen, the film moves, incites, and jabs, all while reminding us how difficult it is to grow up female and sane in this world.