There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.
In all honesty, there is nothing new about this Arab-angled coming of age saga. When she is caught having her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, 13 year old Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. Preferring the suburbs because they are safer, Rifat works for NASA, and while putting on airs of sophistication and patriotism, he burns with a chauvinistic and racist fire. While under his emotional and physically abusive care, Jasira learns about her period, about tampons, about dirty magazines, about masturbation, and about the predatory habits of two new male influences in her life. One is fellow middle schooler Thomas. The other is the family’s next door neighbor - a bigoted reservist with an unhealthy eye on Jasira’s budding sexuality.
Ball clearly wants to redefine the maturation experience for kids circa the new millennium. He wants to break down barriers, tackle taboos, and in general toss out into the open the private topics and traumas that every young girl faces. It’s the kind of thematic universality that drives both the movie and the semi-autobiographical novel (by Alicia Erian) upon which it is based. There is no real discussion of religion (“we’re Christians, just like everyone in Texas” Jasira chides to a clueless kid) and for a film founded in the first Gulf War, there is precious little politics. No, Towelhead revolves exclusively around sex - menstruation, orgasms, molestation, virginity, blood, condoms, lies, seduction, underage nudity, and the adult manipulations and misunderstandings that occur because of same.
When Larry Clark does it, critics complain. Movies like Kids and Ken Park have been labeled pornographic and offensive, treating the teenage years of its characters like a visit to Caligula’s falling Rome. Towelhead is not that bad. In fact, it’s worse. Clark doesn’t dress up his portrayals in symbolist bullshit, nor does he try to apologize for his film’s hedonistic tone. In his mind, he is telling the world about the reality of youth culture - it’s emphasis on drugs, debauchery, and the decision to overindulge in both. Ball doesn’t dare bring this angle to Towelhead, perhaps because the book doesn’t lend itself to said approach. But when dealing with the horrific consequences of abuse - sexual or physical - it seems disingenuous to spin it within a slick suburban pseudo-satire.
Towelhead never tells us what to think. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder what the point is. Can Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Something similar happens when the filmmaker focuses on Jasira’s discovery of masturbation. We see her scissor legs strategy in class, while babysitting, in the school cafeteria. It’s not really a question of inappropriateness. It’s an issue of purpose.
As stated before, this is the kind of film that embraces its own sense of fearlessness, that focuses almost exclusively on how much it can get away with in the name of 2007 social malaise. When Jasira’s father smacks her square in the face, when he bruises her leg and spits on her, we never get the required retort. He’s just a mixed up MAN from the Middle East, that’s all. Similarly, our military pedophile, drooling over Jasira the minute he sees her, gets a last act slice of redemption that’s supposed to soften the blow of his battery. Yet Ball can’t manufacture the necessary outrage or criminal context. Even as Aaron Eckhart is faux fingering 18 year old actress Summer Bashil, it’s like the writer/director never saw There’s Something About Amelia.
Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors. Perhaps Ball thought that he was creating the ultimate adult nightmare, an experience in which everything you suspected about your barely tween son or daughter was disturbingly true. For a seminar of sociologists, maybe but not for a crowd just coming down from Summer’s popcorn swelter. It’s hard to imagine adolescents flocking to this film, especially given the sheepish, almost consensual way Jasira treats her ordeal. Dad beats her? She simply bows her head. Mom lays into her about any and every thing? She’s apologetic. Classmates call her all manner of racial epithets? She finally gets up the nerve to hit a neighbor in the arm. That’s courage.
Maybe they are counting on the carnal curiosity factor. After all, a review like this could easily spark the imagination of the more sleaze minded moviegoers in the demo. One can just see a certain kind of teen boy giggling in the back row, digital camera capturing the few brief glimpses of Bashil sans skivvies (she is never shown full on naked)…and let’s not even mention the adults who are titillated by this kind of content. Naturally, there will be apologists, people who can easily overlook elements like age, age, and age to suggest that Ball has tapped into the harsh realities of growing up. Right…and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a mere lesson in making better guardianship arrangements.
It’s not just that Towelhead is tawdry and tasteless. It’s not the oppressive unrelenting focus on Jasira’s warp speed hormones. It’s not even the notion that someone without a clear frame of reference can proclaim to understand the teen girl experience from the inside out. No, what Ball does here is something similar to an old ‘60s parental caveat - i.e. some things shouldn’t be aired in public. In book form - and especially considering the potential for authenticity from an experienced author’s standpoint - this material may work. Most literature can manage this kind of material because the theater of the mind is so selective and personal. But when given a concrete depiction, the surrounding social/legal/public facets fill in gaps that some of us may not want to see.
In many ways, Towelhead is like Funny Games without the snooty Euro-centric sneer. Ball isn’t out to rub our nose into the notion of middle schoolers gone wild, and the appearance of a hippy dippy couple as cultural conscience toward the end seems to suggest a kind of metaphysical mea culpa. Indeed, the film takes us through some horrifically uncomfortable material only to attempt to make it all better in the end. As the movie moves along, you can literally feel the shift - Eckhart’s sex scene with Bashil is all suggestion, unlike the similarly styled moment between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in Beauty. But that doesn’t excuse the underage aspect, or the clear come-on/tease element inferred. On some level, Ball appears to suggest Jasira deserves what happens to her. Open up the personal Pandora’s ‘box’ and…
It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Critics are allowed to like or loathe anything that falls into their professional lap. But as with the aforementioned affront by Michael Haneke, Towelhead is provocation for the sake of being sensational. We don’t feel any empathy or come to any clear conclusions. Instead, we spend nearly two hours in voyeuristic disgust as a young girl is ground up like grist for a lax media mill. There is no denying that there is honesty here. But it is buried in a sloppy cinematic strategy that can’t stop fixating on the physicality of its lead. Everything here - from the Busby Berkeley inspired Playboy centerfold photo shoot fantasies to Jasira’s asexual striptease - is meant as nothing more than confrontation. After a while, we simply grow tired of the assault. Too bad Ball and his characters don’t feel the same.