Towelhead

Directed by Alan Ball

Alan Ball has made a big name for himself as the writer of American Beauty and the creator of HBO’s Six Feet Under. And in this film, his feature film directing debut, he offers up much of what we have come to expect from his work: biting satire of suburbia, doses of humour and surrealism and a penchant for pushing Controversial hot button topics.

Adapted from Alicia Erian’s novel, Towelhead is about a 13-year old Arab-American girl called Jasira (played by 19-year old Summer Bishil) who is sent to live with her Lebanese father bang in the middle of American whitebread suburbia. She’s discovering her sexuality and how much it sucks to be an ethnic minority. And it’s almost impossible for her to fit in. Her father slaps her for wearing a midriff-bearing top but is constantly absent, staying over at his girlfriend’s place. Her neighbour (played by Aaron Eckhart) is a racist, pedophilic army reservist who takes an interest in her then calls her a slut. Her father takes great offence at his neighbour’s racism but takes greater offence when Jasira starts dating a black guy.

Racism. child sexuality. Pedophilia. Alan Ball loves playing with taboos and generally I do too but I’ve never been able to fully embrace Alan Ball’s work. And I realised why while watching this film. Alan Ball is basically the fictional drama equivalent of Michael Moore. This isn’t a complete criticism but I think the parallel works: Both guys are coming from a left-wing point of view which is easy to sympathise with. Alan Ball hates racism. Michael Moore hates George Bush. All fair enough. Both guys are making big statements by employing satire. All great. But the flaw that lies at the heart of both filmmakers is how they resort to base manipulation in order to get their point across.

In Towelhead, Alan Ball resorts to caricatures who of course are easy targets but these situations couldn’t really exist in real life. Of course, every house in the suburbs has an American flag flying out the front. Of course, the racist neighbour would be watching a rodeo competition on the TV. The hypocrises of the adults in Jasira’s life are all signposted with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Some of the stuff is just flat out unbelievable. Jasira’s black boyfriend starts out by calling her a sand nigger and then sensitively tells her she shouldn’t let people call her names. Then it turns out he listens to REM.

But whatever, nuanced storytelling is not Alan Ball’s forte. He’s of a class of filmmakers like Todd Solondz who likes to attack suburbia by portraying a suburbia that doesn’t exist. There are still plenty of joys to be found in this film. Uncomfortable humour and great acting turns including Toni Collette who once again plays the nicest, most down to earth hippie in the world. Oh yeah, and there’s plenty of period blood if you’re into that. Class.

WATCH THIS WITH:

Happiness, Todd Solondz, 1998.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reviews

2 responses to “Towelhead

  1. Zoraz

    I agree with you up to, and possibly exceeding 100% on this one. I actually read the book before watching the film, and was particularly curious as to how they would render the highly idiosyncratic first person narrative on screen. Answer was: they kinda didn’t.

    In the book Jasira is a strange mix of (admittedly almost unbelievable) naivety and sexual precociousness, but it works most of the time, probably because you are actually inside her head and can hear her thought processes. In the film she just comes across as kind of thick, which I think is quite problematic. The last thing you want in a film like this is to leave the impression that sexual abuse is something that stupid girls (or boys) bring upon themselves by just ‘not knowing what they’re doing’.

    I absolutely agree that Alan Ball has all the subtlety of a jackhammer, but Aaron Eckheart’s in this movie, and I’d pay good money to watch him stare at a blank wall for two hours. The man has charisma. Even when he’s playing a pedophilic rapist. And that’s a tough act to pull off.

  2. Yosh

    This just in: Focus Features has optioned the rights to a Towelhead spin-off in which Aaron Eckhart’s character stares at a blank wall for two hours. They expect to sell at least one ticket.

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