Towelhead

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Towelhead

DRAMA:

United States, 2007

U.S. Release Date:

2008-09-12

Running Length:

2:04

MPAA Classification:

R (Sexual Situations, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Summer Bishil, Chris Messina, Maria Bello, Peter Macdissi, Eugene Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Carrie Preston, Toni Collette

Director:

Alan Ball

Screenplay:

Alan Ball, based on the novel by Alicia Erian

Cinematography:

Newton Thomas Sigel

Music:

Thomas Newman

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Subtitles:

none


Towelhead is a victim of the economics of movie-making. Despite being a critical success at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival (where is played under the name of Nothing Is Private), Towelhead has languished on shelves for a full year. With Warner Brothers' decision to scale back on releasing "specialty" titles and concentrate on high-profile movies, Towelhead's potential release date was continually pushed back. Once, a long delay between initial public screenings and final release indicated a dysfunctional movie. That's no longer the case. Now, it's all about economics. (Witness Warner Brothers' decision to place Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince into an eight-month limbo.) Towelhead's tardy release and the lack of publicity surrounding its opening are more of a comment upon the studio's uncertainty about the film's bankability than they are an indication of its quality.

Alan Ball is the newbie, although that label can be misleading. Towelhead is Ball's directorial debut, but he has a notable resume as a writer - his credits include the Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty. This film, like that one, is a dark satire, although Towelhead isn't as nihilistic or blistering. The movie focuses on issues of tolerance and race while challenging notions about stereotypes. It also asks a question about whether any act, no matter how apparently unselfish it may be, can truly be considered altruistic.

It's 1990 and Jasira (Summer Bishil) is a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl living with her mother (Maria Bello). Mom isn't the most stable of women and she's more interested in keeping her boyfriend than her daughter. This results in Jasira being shipped off to live with her strait-laced Lebanese father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi). Rifat has a long list of rules for Jasira to follow: don't use a tampon, don't wear make-up, don't associate with black boys (black girls are okay), etc. It doesn't take long before she violates nearly every one of his precepts. It isn't that she's a bad girl but that his expectations are unreasonable for a non-repressed girl growing up in America. Her sexual awakening involves two people: a (black) boy at school (Eugene Jones) and the redneck reservist next door (Aaron Eckhart). Rifat is unable to deal with Jasira's emerging sexuality and the rebellious nature that accompanies it. His reaction is to resort to physical abuse. When a nosy neighbor (Toni Collette) notices the bruises, she threatens to inform the authorities, so Rifat changes his tactics.

At the center of Towelhead is Jasira's use, abuse, and manipulation by everyone around her. Her parents vie for her affections as a tangible sign of victory in their ongoing battle against one another. Her boyfriend is hungry for sex. Her pedophile neighbor plays on her emotions in an attempt to find a path to fulfill his forbidden fantasies. Even the liberal do-gooders who take her in have their own agenda. They admit they do it as a means to avoid the inevitable guilt they would feel if something happened to her. Jasira is in many ways a tragic figure, but she is portrayed as a survivor who can rise above all the bad things happening around her. And the screenplay's occasional forays into black comedy take some of the sting out of the grueling incidents that mark her existence.

Anti-Arab feeling wasn't as strong in the early 1990s as it is today, but Ball uses the backdrop of the Gulf War to emphasize that the prejudice is not entirely new. The boy next-door, who has learned from his close-minded parents, calls Jasira "towelhead," "camel jockey," and "sand nigger." (Schoolmates use similar terms.) Everyone assumes that because Rifat is an Arab he supports Saddam. In fact, he's a loyal and patriotic American who believes the war doesn't go far enough. He wants Saddam ousted. He's ultra-concerned about keeping up appearances. His reason for denying his daughter the right to see a black boy is because such a liaison will reflect badly upon him.

Yet, for all the cruelty evidenced by the characters, Ball is careful not to demonize them. There is at least an element of decency in each of them. Guilt haunts many of those who wrong Jasira; she's practically the only one in this movie who is immune to this emotion. Strong performances from Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, and Toni Collette provide a strong skeleton for the characters. The only uneven portrayal belongs to Peter Macdissi, who is unconvincing during the quieter, more dramatic moments. Bishil is great - she captures the essence of her character perfectly - a sassy, horny girl who tries to live as normal a life as she can in abnormal circumstances.

Towelhead's original title, Nothing Is Private, refers to the doctrine of the suburbs - everyone knows everyone else's business. In the end, nothing stays hidden - not Jasira's loss of virginity, the pedophile's advances, or Rifit's abuse. Ball uses the movie's prism to show the double-edged nature of this loss of privacy. Not coincidentally, it parallels issues in today's news - do we give up some of our privacy for greater security? Ball may not have the answers but he eloquently and forcefully explores some of the potential ramifications. The ending may be too pat, but the journey to get there - bitter, spicy, and poignant - more than compensates for any last-minute fumbles.





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