Film Review: “Towelhead”

September 23, 2008

Sometimes when a movie’s done and the credits roll, all you can do is sit there and wonder why this film exists and what you were thinking every moment that you didn’t walk out of it. “Towelhead” is such a film.

With further consideration, I realize what I was thinking: There must be something good that happens in this movie at some point. Unfortunately, there isn’t; “Towelhead” just drags its characters and the viewer through the mud for 116 excruciating minutes. The film is, in short, a series of events that our society — and its 1991 iteration, in which the events take place — would consider not just wrong, but downright abominable, and certainly illegal.

“Towelhead,” based on the identically named novel by Alicia Erian, is about the sexual awakening, if you can call it that, of 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil, who was actually 18 when the movie was made), the product of a Lebanese man and a white woman, neither of whom is in line for any parenting awards. The mother, Gail (Maria Bello), sends her daughter off after discovering that Jasira allowed Gail’s stereotypical dirtbag boyfriend, Barry (Chris Messina), to shave her bikini line. Jasira’s dumped on her father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi, best known for his work in “Six Feet Under,” in his first major big-screen role), a man with two defining characteristics: traditional (read: backwards, racist and hypocritical) views on family life and an extreme hatred for Saddam Hussein.

Rifat lives in a suburb of Houston where everything looks the same, but not in the generally friendly way of, for example, the town of Agrestic in “Weeds”; rather, the houses and their lawns have a bare and uninviting aura around them that must make coming home every day a good deal less than pleasant. Rifat and his Army Reservist next-door neighbor, Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart, who plays a conflicted man about as well as anyone), are in an ongoing patriotism competition. Each man plants a nice, big American flag front and center on his lawn, leading to a couple lingering shots of the houses side by side, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you which house is whose.

Soon after moving in with her father, Jasira discovers pornography and masturbation while babysitting Mr. Vuoso’s son, Zack. The audience is subjected to the image of Jasira sitting in the same room with Zack, rubbing her thighs together and quietly whimpering while fantasizing about topless ladies, as they both read (for the articles, of course) Mr. Vuoso’s porno magazines. At this point, it’s very easy to say, “Ah, I see where this story is going. She’s going to become a lesbian and come into conflict with her father’s traditional values and come of age!”

No.

Jasira does indeed like men, or at the minimum she comprehends that she’s supposed to like men, and so she goes through the motions of liking them. They like her, too, particularly Mr. Vuoso and Jasira’s boyfriend of sorts, Thomas (Eugene Jones III, another actor far older than 13). Without getting into too much detail, let us just say that there is conflict.

The thing is, that’s essentially the problem with the film. It’s an amalgam of tenuously connected conflicts that are just dumped on this poor young girl, who somehow manages to remain rather stoic through it all. The sexuality that pervades the entire thing is presented in a graphic, unpleasant manner; “Towelhead” is so cold and unfeeling in its dealing with its touchy subject matter that the film itself is in conflict with the viewer, constantly challenging the audience to keep watching despite the powerful desire to go do something more pleasant, like visit the dentist.

This all serves to obscure some noteworthy acting performances, particularly by the always reliable Eckhart, no stranger to playing a character in moral conflict. Mr. Vuoso spends much of the movie battling his shameful desires for Jasira, giving in just twice. The odd thing is that he never seems to be particularly ashamed of having or acting on his desire for her; only the consequences bother him. Eckhart and Macdissi have limited screen time together, but in that time they almost entirely silently convey a palpable mutual hatred. Unfortunately, that’s very nearly the only strong emotion that appears in the film.

Bishil is the main victim of the film’s cold treatment of the subject matter; she doesn’t overwhelm in the role of Jasira, but it’s hard to say that she had the proper role or direction to make the most of her acting talent. The performance rings of sincerity, but the fact of the matter is that Jasira doesn’t express much in the way of emotion for the duration of the film outside of the rare outburst. For the most part, Jasira is a wide-eyed observer of her own whirlwind of a life, and Bishil captures that effectively, but I can’t help but feel that director Alan Ball missed out on properly utilizing his young star.

At the end, the overwhelming feeling is that Ball missed out on a lot of things; most grievously, he failed to make a film that is in any way aesthetically or intellectually pleasing. “Towelhead” simply fails to justify its existence, which is right about the worst crime any movie can commit.

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