Towelhead

2008, Movie, R, 116 mins

Review

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After firmly establishing himself as one of the more creative minds in television with HBO's Six Feet Under, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alan Ball (AMERICAN BEAUTY) returns to the big screen for his directing debut, and he couldn't have picked material better suited to his own dark sensibilities: Egyptian-American writer Alicia Erian's acerbically funny, deeply sad and downright harrowing autobiographical novel of compromised adolescence.

Marginalized on account of her heritage on the eve of the first Gulf War, and caught between two selfish parents in the wake of an acrimonious divorce, 13-year-old Lebanese-American Jasira Maroun (newcomer Summer Bishil) is coming of age in Syracuse, NY, without knowing her proper place in her family or the world around her. Jasira understands her burgeoning sexuality and the effect she's beginning to have on men even less, and her self-centered, emotionally needy mother, Gail (Maria Bello), is carelessly teaching her that whatever happens, it's her own fault. When Gail learns that her live-in boyfriend (Chris Messina) has shaved the all the hair from her daughter's inner thighs, Gail blames Jasira and decides it's high time she learned how to act around men. Gail packs her up and ships her off to Houston where Jasira's traditional, Beirut-born father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), as a NASA engineer. Rifat has just moved into a drab, look-alike housing development -- a sign of financial success he reminds Jasira to tell her mother -- but Jasira is miserable. As tension mounts in the Gulf, the kids at school call her "Towelhead" and a lot worse, and Jasira's new home is no real refuge: Rifat is sarcastic, demeaning and physically abusive, giving his daughter a hard slap in the face when she shows up at the breakfast table in a half-shirt and shorts. But Jasira soon notices that what Rifat forbids in his daughter he finds highly alluring in women his own age, like sexy Thena (Lynn Collins), Rifat's coworker and new girlfriend. Jasira spends her afternoons babysitting for Zack (Chase Ellison), the bratty young son of Rifat's neighbors, Eveyln (Carrie Preston) and Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), a copy shop employee who expects at to be shipped off to the Gulf at any moment. Rifat, who never once lets anyone forget that his beleaguered Beirut was once considered the Paris of the Middle East, considers Travis little more than an ignorant redneck, but Jasira sees him as something else: sexy. And disturbingly, Travis looks at Jasira in the same way.

With no one around to teach her about her body (Rifat even forbids her to use a tampon when she has her first period) or her sexuality (Jasira becomes a chronic masturbator after she has her first orgasm looking at the nude women in Travis's skin mags), Jasira has no way to judge impropriety, even when it comes to boys her own age, like goodlooking Thomas (Eugene Jones). It's not until Rifat's wise and hugely pregnant neighbor, Melina (Toni Collette), returns from her honeymoon that Jasira has any one looking out for her, and by then it's too late. And that's the lesson this dark but important film has to teach: In a world of double standards and mixed signals, the less we tell our daughters about sex, the more vulnerable they become. Ironic, then, the level of outrage Ball's film admittedly graphic has inspired. Originally screened under the less provocative title NOTHING IS PRIVATE, the film is now being released under Erian's original title. And that's as it should be: The movie, like Erian's novel, doesn't pull a single punch and stands as one of the frankest depictions of teenage sexuality since Michael Cuesta's bold 12 AND HOLDING. Macdissi, who appeared as a bisexual hustler/phone salesman in Ball's 2007 stage production All That I Will Ever Be, is an amazingly mercurial actor: He's able to go from detestable to sympathetic and back again with quicksilver speed. But the movie belongs to the fifth-billed Bishil, a truly gutsy young actress who captures the essence of young female desire in all its adolescent confusion. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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