Film review: Towelhead

Towelhead
2008
Scott Rudin productions, Indian Paintbrush, This Is That

STARRING Summer Bishil, Peter Macdissi, Toni Collette, Maria Bello, Aaron Eckhart, Chris Messina, Eugene Jones III, Gemmenne de la Peña, Matt Letscher, Chase Ellison, Lynn Collins, Eamonn Roche, Carrie Preston
WRITTEN BY Alan Ball based on the book ‘Towelhead’ by Alicia Erian
PRODUCED BY Scott Rudin, Steven M. Rales, Alan Ball, Ted Hope
DIRECTED BY Alan Ball

SHOT BY Newton Thomas Sigel
EDITED BY Andy Keir
MUSIC BY Thomas Newman
DISTRIBUTED BY Warner Independent Pictures

Screened 2008-07-27

Effective social agenda works tend to provoke in the audience desperate sycophancy, come-join-me-in-the-right pride, or bitter ceaseless polemics.  Alan Ball’s Towelhead may just end up succeeding with the wrong crowds to get its myriad messages across (any one of which would’ve constituted a full narrative), those viewers being HBO’s target audience of 20-40 year old, middle-upper income city-dwellers – but then, they’re probably the only ones who will care about the injustice involved in a 13 year old getting her rocks off when and how she wants to.  Young Jasira (Bishil), half-Lebanese, rockets into puberty in the Texas suburban sprawl where she has recently moved away from her insane bitch hypocrite mother only to swap for her insane bitch hypocrite father, played by Macdissi in what is little more than an extension of the outspoken art teacher role on Ball’s Six Feet Under.  Jasira’s life is quite confusing, and of course yours would be too if the lives of every adult in the vicinity revolved around you, often in depraved ways.  All-American Man next door, the enjoyable Eckhart, slowly devolves into a drooling lech as their debaucheries mount.  Nosy neighbors – the ‘control subjects’ in this social experiment – include preggy Collette and hubby, the honest, multilingual, healthily sexually active, concerned citizens that are posited as ‘the way to be sane and responsible in America,’ and are soon to be Jasira’s safe haven.  Horny little Jasira’s personality doesn’t extend beyond her ample sexual awakening and by the end she’s experienced more varieties of encounters in one year of her life than most teens do through all of high school.

Towelhead, for any alleged controversy, is unfortunately not even an apt title for this piece, as the film is only a fish-out-of-water story in the second or third place.  Ball presents a very odd moral universe, where the white, level-headed globetrotting Americans are the only bastions of sanity around adults that are so unbalanced that they are impossible to empathize with.  Young Jasira represents émigré-America’s respective moral and sexual consciences, finally awakened out of repression and struggling to reconcile their resentment with pure, 100% transcendence.  It’s not that the events portrayed in the film don’t happen… but in an effort to melodramaticize them Ball has forced performances (nobody ever directs children realistically!), 2nd rate musical cues, TV-level direction… Towelhead should’ve been a Larry Clark film, not a touchy-feely exploitative after-school special.  The painful irony is that this polemic on sex is too sexy (or wants to be too sexy) to be taken seriously.  If you’d like to watch a much more fleshed-out, performance-driven film that is somewhat similar – young girl defines [not necessarily sexual] identity – this reviewer highly recommends the superior White Oleander.  And to think, I was once a big fan of Alan Ball… guess my time was up.

written by David Ashley

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