Towelhead

Stuart:

Alan Ball returns to the big screen with Towelhead, a title that pretty much signposts what you’re in for. It follows young teen Jasira (Summer Bishil), an Arab-American girl who is only just coming to terms with her sexuality. Unfortunately, all the adults around her seem to be coming to terms with it also, and all want to contribute in one way or another. The film begins with her stepfather offering to shave her bikini line, and events pretty much gets worse from then on in. As with most of Alan Ball’s work, there are many moments that make you shudder at the awkwardness and… wrongness… of it all.

Jasira is sent off to live with her Lebanese Dad in one of those eerie ‘dream suburbs’ indie American flicks can’t get enough of (think The Chumscrubber, American Beauty or ‘Weeds’), and it this kind of setting has an instant shorthand – you see the flagpoles and identical, perfect houses and know something must be wrong.Towelhead (Nothing is Private) This makes the film a bit tiresome, actually.

Whilst it’s based on a book by Alicia Erian, it’s pretty obvious why it would have appealed to Ball. It is remarkably similar to American Beauty, though I can imagine that this film won’t be quite as successful, probably because there’s no slacker Kevin Spacey to side with. Like that overrated film, Towelhead lays it all on a bit too thick. Aaron Eckhart, who is genetically predisposed to playing morally complex characters, plays National Guard neighbour Travis, who seems to have a little too much interest in Jasira, whilst his son Zack (Chase Ellison) hurls all sorts of racist abuse her way (including the completely inaccurate one in the title). Jasira’s mother Gail (Maria Bello) is all too quick to blame her husband’s failings on her daughter, whilst Jasira’s actual dad Rifat (Peter Macdisi) is quick to yell at her or slap her around for not acting like a ‘proper lady’.

There are more characters intent on living through Jasira in some way or another, and it would all be too much if the film didn’t have such a strong final act. The film on the whole is effective, and deliberately portrays the wrongdoers as human and not simply evil. This is probably why neighbours Melina (Toni Collette) and Gil (Matt Lescher) stick out so much, cos they seem to be all too perfect in comparison. The central performance by Bishil is extraordinary and the film wouldn’t have worked without her absolute perfection in showing an impressionable and innocent girl coming into her own. Towelhead is a solid feature, if a little gauche. It’s kind of like a mainstream Todd Solondz flick.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Review by Stuart Wilson, 18th October 2008
Hoopla Factor: 3.5 stars


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