Reviews

Towelhead

As viewers of Towelhead must know (and Jasira, eternally ripe and optimistic, will never know), the future has only become more constricted.


Towelhead

Director: Alan Ball
Cast: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Peter Macdissi, Toni Collette, Maria Bello, Eugene Jones III
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Independent Pictures
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2008-08-12 (Limited release)

"You're beautiful, just the way you are." So soothes Barry (Chris Messina), even as he suggests his 13-year-old stepdaughter might be improved just a little, with his help. Jasira (Summer Bishil) agrees to his offer to shave her thick black pubic hair, as it's been causing her some embarrassment in gym class. She's a kid and wants to please Barry. But she doesn’t see what you see, that as he kneels before her, her gaze, fixed on an offscreen middle distance, reveals her own distress.

This image and others equally discomfiting form a kind of game in Towelhead, a movie that ostensibly track's Jasira's responses to repeated bad behaviors by adults. This image and others equally discomfiting form a kind of game in Towelhead. As the point of view and tone shift, from accusatory to broadly comic, you needn't see Jasira's abuse as such. Her narration, drawn largely from Alicia Erian's novel, grants her a childish wisdom, painting the adults as bumbling buffoons, while Jasira appears at once extraordinary and representative, perceptive and naïve. A half-Lebanese, half-white child living in the U.S., circa 1990, she sees both limits and possibilities everywhere she looks. But the movie provides little context for her complicated view, surrounding her with the sorts of pathologically immature adults who tend to populate scathing memoirs.

These include Jasira's mother Gail (Maria Bello). Upon discovering the discarded pubic hair in her bathroom, she blames her daughter for the violation ("There are right ways to act around men and there are wrong ways") and sends from Syracuse to Houston to live with her father. Though Jasira comprehends the injustice here, she also absorbs the guilt dumped on her, and so sees her relocation as punishment. Indeed, the very Christian Rifat (Peter Macdissi) is something like a warden, regulating her clothes, activities, and friends. He slaps her when she dresses for the first day of school in a skirt he deems too short, insists that her friends be white, and, when she starts her period, she can only wear pads, because "Tampons are for married women."

As war looms in background headlines ("Hussein Calls Blockade An Act of War"), Rifat begins to compete with his cleft-chinned, Army reservist neighbor Travis (Aaron Eckhart) over whose display of green-lawn patriotism is most sincere and well-tended. When Jasira begins to babysit for Travis 10-year-old, Zack (Chase Ellison), she's introduced to Travis' hidden stash of porn magazines. The effect is complicated. Jasira is not only aroused by the centerfolds (a point made clear as she closes her eyes and rubs her legs together while 10-year-old Zack reads comic books), but also identifies with them. This poses a problem for the girl with thick black pubic hair, as the airbrushed, pale-skinned, platinum blond queenies are plainly impossible role models.

Though the movie here and elsewhere raises the specter of racism (her classmates and Zack call Jasira names, including "sand nigger" and the film's title), it never precisely makes the connection between sex and race (or sex and age, or sex and class). Rather, it plunges headlong into the completely yucky seduction of Jasira by Travis, a smooth-talking, self-righteous, plainly insidious fellow who tells her he's on his way to the Middle East when he's not, in order to get into her pants on dark evening when his wife and her father are away.

Here it seems easy to compare Travis with Lester (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty, the overrated paean to depleted masculinity scripted by Towelhead writer-director Alan Ball. Both men seek revitalization in the attention of girls, whether the proudly untouchable cheerleader in Lester's case, or the curious, bewildered exotic in Travis'. Though both films indict such self-involved, willfully stupid adventures (see also: the gulf war), neither makes the indictment especially difficult for viewers, but instead, allows them to feel superior to such desperate, terminally silly sad-sacks. Watching Travis gape from between Jasira's bare legs only makes you despise him, not necessarily connect the many dots among Travis, militarism and misogyny, racism and Rifat's religious-based and completely hypocritical strictures. These are men who repeat their infractions and claim ignorance as a defense.

The film does offer Jasira two emotional resources beyond the bookended men. On spotting Jasira's interactions Travis, her good-hearted pregnant neighbor Melina (Toni Collette) hands her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and offers her home as a sanctuary (that's not to say the book provides quite the same thrills as the porn magazines, but she does begin to perceive differences between internal and superficial phenomena). Her self-investigation is not exactly boosted by her relationship with Thomas (Eugene Jones III), whose blackness makes him the object of Rifat's derision and who, eager to please his new friend, agrees to steal his mother's tampons for her.

While the kids bond over their mutual experiences with prejudice and clueless adults, they are also inclined to follow the models set before them. Jasira and Thomas embody some hope for a less angry and fearful, less limiting future, their affection for one another suggesting trust as well as rebellion against their parents. And yet, as viewers of Towelhead must know (and Jasira, eternally ripe and courageous and optimistic, will never know), that future has only become more constricted.

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