Pros: the climactic shouting match
Cons: a young adult cast as a child undercuts a lot
Nothing Is Private, the title of the novel by Egyptian-American writer Alicia Erian that Alan Ball adapted and directed as "Towelhead. tells more of what is central to the story of Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil), the supposedly 13-year-old who, at the start, is being exiled from her blond mother (Mario Bello) in Syracuse, New York, because her mother's boyfriend volunteered to shave her.
Confusing as things were for her there, the are more confusing in a Houston neighborhood or suburb filled with NASA employees, including her Lebanese Christian father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi) whose strictness includes bans on makeup and tampons and razors. Thomas Bradley ( Eugene Jones), a tall and very polite African American in her school first calls her "sand nig-ger" then apologizes for it. Oddly, he does not have access to condoms, but Jasira found a string of them in the duffel bag packed by her neighbor, Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), who has hired Jasira to babysit his ten-year-old and very bratty son Zack (Chase Ellison).
Zack knows where his father stores his skin magazines. Jasir fails in forbidding Zack to look at them and soon becomes fascinated by them herself. Travis is embarrassed and annoyed when he finds out the children have been ogling his collection, and is even more disconcerted when Jasira tells him that she likes to look at them because they giver her orgasms.
I don't know how an adult is supposed to respond to such a statement. Coming from a very attractive 19-year-old (as Bishil was while playing 13) this jumpstarts sexual fantasies in Travis, who does not love his wife and is hoping to be called up for reserve duty in the first Bush's invasion of Iraq.
If Bisil was playing her actual age, and a neighbor hired to babysit the ten year old, the line between consent and rape would be fuzzy. He forces himself on her and seems more shocked than he to have accomplished a digital deflowering. With a 13-year-old, this is statutory rape, with consent not a consideration.
Traumatic (and messy) as that was, Jasira considers herself ready for penetrative sex. Her schoolmate/boyfriend Thomas is very gentle, first completely shaving her body, then very gently bedding her.
Jasira's father forbids her to see a black student. Their neighbor, Melina Hines (Toni Collette) is very suspicious of Jasira being along with Travis. After Jasira's father bruises her after he finds the skin magazine, Jasir flees to the very pregnant Hines household. Her husband, Gil (Matt Letscher) worked in the Peace Corps in Yemen and, thus, is able to caution Rifat in Arabic.
The queasiness about Travis lusting after the supposed 13-year-old along with celebration of her taking control of sexual decisions provide drama with more than bits of comedy. For me, the best part of the movie was the verbal shoot-out at the Hines house about Jasira's losing her virginity. Her father blames the Hineses, Thomas stands up to take responsibility, and Jasira specifies the place was her father's home, and the partner neighbor Travis. Confirming Melina's fears, this turns the focus from Tom and Jasira to Travis's statutory rape.
The ending (in the delivery room) is difficult for me to believe in part.
I thought that most of the characters were rather flat puppets, and that the "natural" innocence of the thirteen-year-old Jasira was fatally compromised by having a nineteen-year-old in the part. Still, I had to wonder about Ball centering another movie on the lust of an adult male (Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty", Aaron Eckart in "Towelhead") on a dark-skinned adolescent schoolgirl. Perhaps, Eckart;s Travis is too earnest and conflicted. There was more black comedy in "American Beauty" — and in Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" in which the purportedly twelve-year-old nymphet was played by a mature-looking sixteen-year-old Sue Lyons.
If there is supposed to be a message about racism, intolerance, and/or adolescent sexual freedom, it is so muddle as to be muffled.
The disc includes 80 minutes (in two segments) of roundtables about racism in/and the movie. Ball also claims that "when you watch the movie, you become a towelhead. You know what it's like to be called that." I have my doubts about that, though perhaps it fits to being called a "slut"?
I guess that I didn't get clear answers to the many social questions rained b "Six Feet Under," either, but I was disappointed by the general flat, simplified characters in "Towelhead" (both the Lebanese and the WASP parents) and confused about reacting to what happens to a 19-year-old who is counterfeiting (with occasional success) a 13-year-old. (Also, Bishil looks South Asian, though like the character of Jasira, Bishil has a white American mother.)
© 2009, Stephen O. Murray