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Dustin Putman

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Towelhead  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Alan Ball.
Cast: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Macdissi, Toni Collette, Maria Bello, Eugene Jones, Matt Letscher, Chase Ellison, Gemmenne de la Pena, Lynn Collins, Chris Messina, Carrie Preston, Cleo King.
2008 – 124 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong sexual content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 16, 2008.
The auspicious directorial debut of Alan Ball (screenwriter of 1999's "American Beauty" and HBO's "Six Feet Under"), "Towelhead" is a candid, unflinching portrait of a lonely teenage girl trying to make sense of her newfound sexuality without the help of the mostly clueless adults around her. That 13-year-old Jazira (Summer Bishil) is an Arab-American living in a suburban Texas town lends the picture, adapted from the novel by Alicia Erian, a fresh point-of-view. Facing racism and ignorance from all sides—classmates and even the 10-year-old neighbor boy (Chase Ellison) she babysits passingly call her a wide range of colorful epithets, while her own Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) forbids her from seeing the respectable Thomas (Eugene Jones) simply because he's black—Jazira embraces her burgeoning hormones as a respite from misery. At least in this way, she finally receives the attention she yearns.

When selfish mother Gail (Maria Bello) catches boyfriend Barry (Chris Messina) assisting Jazira in shaving her pubic hair, she doesn't think twice about shipping her off to Houston to live with her father. Sitting at the airport, Jazira weeping into her mother's shoulder, Gail coldly tells her, "I want you to know this is all your fault." Once in Texas, Jazira struggles to make her father happy under his strict rules. When she walks out to the breakfast table wearing barely revealing clothes the morning after arriving, dad Rifat slaps her and tells her to put something sensible on. And, when she gets her period for the first time, he refuses to buy her tampons. Rifat isn't a bad man, but he knows little about raising a teenage daughter, blissful in his delusions that she is still just a little girl. The hypocrisy in his actions quickly shine through, allowing Jazira to sip a beer when they go out to dinner and letting his new girlfriend Thena (Lynn Collins) dress her up in make-up when she stays over at their house.

While looking after the obnoxious Zach, Jazira catches him flipping through one of his dad's pornographic magazines. Repressed for her whole life, she is naturally curious of the nude women adorning every page, and even more surprised when she experiences her first orgasm. With the flood gates open, so to speak, Jazira has trouble saying no when Zach's army reservist father Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) comes onto her one afternoon while Rifat isn't home. Travis isn't immediately viewed by writer-director Alan Ball as a pedophile, but as a sad, sorry man in a loveless marriage who fools himself into believing being with Jazira can bring back the freedom and youth he once knew. Meanwhile, despite her dad's insistence that she quit spending time with Thomas, the two of them embark on a sexual relationship of their own. Jazira is, indeed, a very lost young woman, and it takes a caring neighbor, the openly honest and very pregnant Melina Hines (Toni Collette), to notice.

"Towelhead" can be brutally funny, carnally frank, and dramatically painful, a slice-of-life that is anything but rosy and neat. Few acquaintances and authority figures can pronounce Jazira's name and, worse yet, most of them don't even take the time to find out who she is on the inside. In fact, they don't even properly process her ethnicity, as when a school teacher who has just come to her aid is shocked to find out that she doesn't speak Spanish. But then, why would she? That Jazira is just like anyone else and so many people still insist on placing labels upon her only aids in her rising disillusionment and confusion. When those that really do exhibit a certain colorblind quality latch onto her, they are unfortunately the very people that her father is most critical of. Rifat has never been a teenage girl, for one, and the prejudices directed his way have obviously not hindered his own racially motivated outlook.

In a breakthrough debut performance, Summer Bishil is extraordinary as Jazira. Eighteen at the time of filming but easily passing for thirteen, Bishil uses telling body language, speech, and the silences in between to key in on exactly the way a girl of that age acts. Wobbling awkwardly from woman to child, Jazira treats her sexual awakening in a nonchalant manner, believing that it is what is expected from her and not thoroughly understanding the potential consequences. She may not have wanted Travis to touch her, but that doesn't stop her from allowing to go further with her later in the film. This sequence, understandably creepy but avoiding exploitation, superbly displays Jazira's current mindframe, and her naiveté in trusting a man who is blatantly using and lying to her to fulfill his own momentary desires. The demands put upon Bishil would be difficult for an actor of any age, and she embraces the role with a fearless integrity.

As Travis Vuoso, Aaron Eckhart (2008's "The Dark Knight") manages to humanize a man capable of doing unsavory and downright criminal things. There is more going on beneath the surface of Travis than the film explores, and Eckhart brings to the part a complexity that makes him more than just a two-dimensional predator. Supporting work from Toni Collette (2007's "Evening"), warm and inviting as Jazira's most trustworthy confidante, Melina, and Maria Bello (2008's "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor"), a stark representation of an ill-equipped, self-involved mother as Gail, is first-rate. In a small but quietly poignant role, Gemmenne de la Pena (2005's "The Weather Man") also marks an impression as Denise, a chatty classmate of Jazira's who tries to be her friend, but is ultimately left out in the cold.

Set in the 1990-'91 months in which the Gulf War was filling the airwaves, "Towelhead" richly plants itself in a specific place and time even as universal themes involving sexuality, bigotry, and growing up prevail in the present day. Where the film lacks a bit of clarity is in the signification of what Jazira learns by the end of the story. She comes to realize that she, and no one else, should be in control of her body and values, but her adamance in continuing to be sexually active with Thomas calls this into question. Had Jazira and Thomas shared a bond that went beyond the physical, that would be one thing, but their relationship isn't developed beyond this single trait. Perhaps the rest of their material together found its way to the cutting room floor. This debit aside, "Towelhead" is a strong, forthright motion picture that accurately offers few cut-and-dry answers and blessedly doesn't shy away from its socially demanding subject matter. In Alan Ball, the film pronounces a new filmmaking talent. It has long been a given that he can write, but it wasn't until now that he has proven his worth as a director equally as adept.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman