TowelheadReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/19/08 14:00:00
“Towelhead” is a film that boldly chooses to strip away the seemingly pleasant façade of suburban America in order to reveal that hiding behind the well-manicured lawns and perfect smiles is a seething underbelly of lust and hatred in which virtually all of the adult women are castrating shrews, virtually all of the adult men are self-absorbed jerks who are either violent and hypocritical monsters or unhappily married dolts who have chosen to deal with their unhappiness by retreating into a state of arrested adolescence and the kids are precociously self-aware types who are fumbling their way through misadventures involving sex and drugs that are way beyond their emotional pay grades. At this point, many of you may be grumbling to yourself “In other words, it is basically another version of “American Beauty,” right?” Well, yes and no. On the one hand, like that inexplicably popular film, it contains all of the elements mentioned above and it was even written and directed by “Beauty” screenwriter Alan Ball to boot. On the other hand, although the wildly overrated “American Beauty” has gone on to become considered one of the all-time least deserving winners of the Best Picture Oscar (especially when you consider that it took the prize in the same year that saw the release of “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Insider,” “Magnolia” and “Fight Club,” to name just a few), it at least had a few tangible elements that even the most harshly revisionist critic would have to acknowledge as having worked, such as the look of the film, the galvanizing performance from Kevin Spacey and a few spiky bits of dialogue here and there. “Towelhead,” on the other hand, feels like what “American Beauty” would have been like if those virtues had been ruthlessly stripped away and replaced with deeply unpleasant material involving race and sex in a manner that wants to be considered “edgy” and “provocative” but which actually comes across as “clumsy” and “insulting” and “incredibly off-putting.”Based on the novel by Alicia Erian and set during the buildup to the first Gulf War, “Towelhead” stars newcomer Summer Bishil as Jasira Maroun, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl who is just beginning to enter the dark and confusing world of adolescence and who is naturally curious about her changing body. Alas, she isn’t the only one curious about the latter and when the live-in boyfriend of her mother (Maria Bello) gallantly helps Jasira shave away that unsightly hair from her bikini area, Mom freaks out and sends her off (with the tearful parting reminder that “This whole thing is your fault”) to live in a cookie-cutter Texas suburb with her Lebanese father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), a man who is perfectly willing to cast aside his own heritage in order to better fit in with his surroundings by screwing around with a much younger American girlfriend (Lynn Collins), declaring his patriotism by erecting an enormous flagpole on his front lawn while denouncing Saddam Hussein at every turn and demonstrating a latent racist streak. However, he is still strict and traditionalist enough to look upon Jasira’s transformation into womanhood with uncomprehending scorn and revulsion--he unhesitatingly wallops her for the crime of innocently coming out to breakfast wearing only a long T-shirt and underwear and when she gets her first period, he bars her from using tampons and forces her to wear maxi-pads that are bulky enough to sop up all the blood spilled in a Quentin Tarantino film. Coupled with the racist taunts that she receives on a daily basis from her clueless classmates, Jasira feels increasingly isolated from both her new surroundings and herself.
Things change considerably when Rifat orders Jasira to take the job babysitting the young son of the next-door neighbors, racist Army reservist Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) and his racist and shrewish wife Evelyn (Carrie Preston). While Jasira hates the job--the kid is, perhaps not surprisingly, an obnoxious brat and a racist in training--it does have one recompense in a surreptitiously hidden stack of nudie magazines belonging to Mr. Vuoso that that she uses to help foster her own sexual development, if you know what I mean. This leads to a strange and deeply disturbing relationship developing between the young girl who is old enough to unconsciously deploy a Lolita-esque attitude and young enough to not realize its full implications and the much older man who knows deep down that his interest in the girl is wrong but who is nevertheless still compelled to jam his fingers down her panties one night when they are all alone. In fact, the only person around who seems to have Jasira’s best interests at heart (including Jasira herself, whose feelings towards Mr. Vuoso are deeply conflicted) is fellow neighbor Melina (Toni Collette), a hugely pregnant, Edie Brickell-listening earth mother type who knows that something is up with Vuoso and Jasira and who tries to help the latter by providing her with a safe place to stay, an ear to listen to her problems and a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” for all the other stuff.
In short, “Towelhead” is a film that looks the initial sexual fumblings of adolescence and the ways in which adults become involved with and influence those discoveries through the eyes of a girl who is too young and unknowing to realize that virtually every relationship that she is involved in--whether it is with her parents, the creep-next-door or the black classmate (Eugene Jones) who first calls her “sand nigger” and then admits that he wants to date her, mostly as a way of getting her into bed--is one based almost entirely in one form of abuse or another. Obviously, this is a touchy conceit for a movie and one that can only work if the filmmaker finds the correct tone with which to approach the material--something like the sadly underrated “Smooth Talk,” a sadly underseen 1986 coming-of-age horror film with Laura Dern as the unwitting prey and Treat Williams as her predator, comes immediately to mind--or else the entire thing will devolve into a sordid mass of sheer unpleasantness. Since I haven’t read the book, I have no idea how or if the story came together on the printed page but in bringing it to the big screen, Alan Ball fumbles the tone right from the start (in which he asks us to witness any number of unpleasant acts involving the characters without first giving us any sort of proper introduction to them) and never comes close to regaining it during the next two hours.
Ball’s intent, I suppose, is to give the story the same kind of darkly comic tone that he used in “American Beauty” in order to make it a little more palatable to viewers who might otherwise be put off by the potentially painful material. Unfortunately, when dark comedy goes wrong, it just seems weird and/or deeply unpleasant and that is what happens in “Towelhead.” There are some scenes that I suppose could have worked, such as the bit where Vuoso and Jasira go out to dinner and she is referred to by the waiter as “your daughter” and the climax in which most of the key players finds themselves under the same roof as all secrets are finally revealed, but they are written and staged in such a clumsy manner. There are other scenes, such as the moment when Jasira’s school-age boyfriend realizes that he may not have been the first one to get into her pants, that scream out for some kind of comic touch but which are so underwritten and underplayed that they feel like a soap opera being shown in slow motion. Then there are the bits in which Ball goes for broader comedy, such as Jasira’s visions of the centerfolds in her magazines coming to life in all their vapid, color-saturated glory and some nonsense involving a dead cat, that are so awkwardly done that you can’t begin to imagine what he could have possibly been thinking when he filmed them and when he chose to include them in his final cut.
To his credit, Ball does manage to get some decent performances out of his cast, though it feels at times as though they have put more thought into his characters than he has. As Jasira, who is in virtually every scene of the film, Summer Bishil (who is actually 20 years old now) does as good of a job of playing the part as one could imagine but she comes across as so introverted at times that it is occasionally difficult to work up a lot of sympathy for her and her problems. Likewise, Aaron Eckhart does a good job of playing Vuoso in a way that allows his charm to slide into creepiness so quickly and quietly that it hardly gets a chance to register, but he winds up serving almost as a bystander during the final scenes. Arguably the best performance comes from Peter Macdissi as Jasira’s father--as the self-loathing Arab who takes out all his frustrations on his daughter, he comes closest to finding the tone that Ball missed out on but even he turns into a cartoon character too many times for his work to fully shine. On the other hand, Maria Bello’s turn as Jasira’s equally self-absorbed mother is all cartoon and no nuance and the result is a performance that is pitched so shrilly that it makes her work in “The Mummy 3” look refined by comparison. (To be fair, it should be noted that the part itself is such a smug. one-note caricature of a monstrous mommy that it makes Annette Bening’s cartoonish character in “American Beauty” seem refined, fairly drawn and remarkably subtle by comparison.)However, the real problem with “Towelhead” is that it never seems as if Ball has anything that he wants to say or do with this material other than to shock the easily shockable with bad behavior that might be labeled “transgressive” by the same dolts who considered exploitative junk like “Thirteen” to be a real eye-opener. True, “American Beauty” had this same problem as well, but at least it has a filmmaker behind it who was skilled enough to stage it in such a way so that you didn’t realize just how hollow it was until you saw it a second time. This time around, Ball always feels ill-at-ease with the material and never figures out how to pull his individual sequences of sordid behavior into a cohesive whole and the result is a tiresome and fairly hateful mess that wants to raise hackles but only succeeds in coming across like a Todd Solondz film sans the wit, whimsy and empathy.
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