‘Towelhead’ is Meant to Provoke

By Bob Strauss

“Towelhead’s” title is considered insensitive and definitely provocative. The film’s sexualization of a 13-year-old girl makes Miley Cyrus look like a kindergartner. It also questions basic assumptions about physically abusive parents, good Samaritans and even Saddam Hussein.

Lucky thing this is a really terrific movie or it might be banned across the country.

Many people will still find a lot about “Towelhead” to get upset about, and they’re perfectly welcome to. It was designed to push buttons, but also to make you think about prejudices, morals and judgments that we may not need to examine but would probably benefit from doing so.

It’s also absolutely hilarious in the truest, behavior-based way – – and in that kind of passionately deadpan manner that Alan Ball, the writer of “American Beauty” and creator of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” can do so well.

For his feature directing debut, Ball chose to adapt the perceptive, semi-autobiographical novel by Alicia Erian, an Arab- American woman. Her takes on the wonderful, alarming weirdness of teen sexuality and suburban discontent are right in tune with Ball’s sensibility. Substitute ignorant and/or hypocritical racism for homophobia, and it’s easy to see why Ball cottoned to this material like it was his own life story.

In “Towelhead,” Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil) is what you might call an early developer — so much so that her mother’s boyfriend finds it necessary to help her trim her bikini line. When Mom (Maria Bello) gets wind of this, she immediately packs off Jasira to her father Rifat’s (Peter Macdissi) new place on a cul-de-sac outside Houston.

A Lebanese Christian, an apparently respectable NASA engineer and quite the bimbo hound, Rifat nonetheless has some serious, Old World double standards regarding his daughter’s blooming womanliness. He also has a completely weird personality. So it’s little wonder when, once Jasira discovers the joy of self-pleasuring, she invites male attention from dubious sources. There’s the Army reservist next door, Travis Vuoso (“Dark Knight’s” Aaron Eckhart), and a nice but one-track-minded African-American kid, Thomas Bradley (Eugene Jones), from the new school where everybody else calls Jasira racist names.

This is during the winter of 1991 when the first Gulf War is on. Even though Rifat hates Saddam more than anyone and Jasira barely even realizes she is part Arab, they’re suddenly the neighborhood’s questionable “others.” A competition to show who’s most patriotic on the block ensues, and it outlandishly mirrors Jasira’s sexual explorations. But embattled ethnic pride also bonds her and Rifat closer together for the first time in their lives.

Ball is merciless toward — yet immensely understanding of — every adult character, and that’s a major accomplishment for any movie. But he goes so much further with Jasira, presenting a naive adolescent who, yes, lets herself be terribly exploited, but also insists on learning, growing and gaining more control from every outrageous situation she gets herself into. This girl may not be as smart-mouthed as Juno (though some of her lines are better), but she’s a lot smarter. And she refuses to consider herself a victim against some pretty strong encouragement otherwise.

Bishil was 18 at the time she made “Towelhead,” so anyone inclined to scream kiddie porn is out of luck (besides, director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel frames everything so we never actually see Jasira in the act). Much more importantly, she’s one of the finest natural film actresses to emerge in years. As strong as many of its other aspects are, the movie would not have succeeded without the perfectly calibrated confusion, intelligence and, yes, lust Bishil conveys, and the complex emotions she appears to effortlessly make crystal clear.

“Towelhead” is tough stuff. It’s also brilliant stuff. Proceed, with caution, accordingly.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

[email protected]

TOWELHEAD – Four stars

>R: sex, nudity, violence, racism, language, children in peril.

>Starring: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Macdissi, Toni Collette, Maria Bello, Eugene Jones.

>Director: Alan Ball.

>Running time: 1 hr. 56 min.

>Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West L.A.

>In a nutshell: There’s something to upset everyone in this dark comedy about a 13-year-old Arab-American girl’s coming of age; it also happens to be one of the smartest, best-acted movies of the year.

(c) 2008 Daily News; Los Angeles, Calif.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.