I learned three things while watching Towelhead the other day:
1. Alan Ball is one fucked up dude. Between this, Six Feet Under, and American Beauty I scarcely can think of a creator with a more twisted outlook on suburban life in America.
2. Aaron Eckhart is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. He’s even good in crapfests like The Core and The Black Dahlia.
3. I saw more blood in this film than I’m likely to see in Max Payne. And that’s just sad.
Towelhead tells the story of Jasira, a half-Lebanese girl living in America with her strict father. Jasira’s mother is self absorbed and emotionally unstable. When her boyfriend touches Jasira inappropriately, she blames Jasira and ships her off to live with her father. Jasira’s father, Rifat, is a completely different kind of crazy. He’s strict in his rules when it comes to Jasira, but lax when they apply to himself. He openly slaps and hits Jasira for minor infractions. He defends her to others, then chastises her in private for the same thing.
Jasira is facing a severe identity crisis. Her mother practically disowns her, and her father claims to be looking out for her best interests as he berates her every action. Because of this, along with a sudden realization of how tough life can be in America for an Arab, causes her to latch onto any men who take any interest in her. She catches the eye of Army reservist, Travis Ruoso, who takes advantage of Jasira’s obvious desire to please the men in her life. Meanwhile, Jasira also starts dating an African-American boy from school, whom her father instantly forces her to stop seeing because “people will talk”. The influence of these awful people in her life leave Jasira woefully unprepared for the trials any adolescent girl is destined to face. She doesn’t know how to handle being called names at school. She doesn’t know how to handle the onset of her period, and her father is certainly no help in that area. He’s much more concerned about the cost of tampons than his daughter’s well being. And as stated before, she doesn’t know how to handle the attentions of the opposite sex. Jasira is a strikingly attractive girl who looks far older than her age.
I gotta admit I was struck by some of the reviews I’ve seen bashing this film mercilessly. The prevailing opinion is that it’s a film that feels phoney. A film that is more concerned with hammering home a message than telling a good story. I criticized Lakeview Terrace last week for the same thing. I didn’t get that impression here. The film has plenty to say about Americans and the way we perceive those that are different than us, particularly those of Middle Eastern descent. But I didn’t feel I was clobbered by someone trying to make a point. Travis Ruoso, who obviously has some bigotry in his heart, isn’t presented to us as a completely unsympathetic character. In fact, in some odd way I think he learns to appreciate other races when he falls in love(or is it lust?) with Jasira. There are some interesting developments between Ruoso and his son who is clearly following in daddy’s racist footsteps. Alan Ball mines some of the same material he presented in American Beauty with Ruoso’s pathetic, loveless marriage. Ruoso, much like Lester Burnham in Beauty, seeks what happiness he can find elsewhere regardless of the potential consequences.
Still, the best part of this film is the performance by Summer Bishil, who plays Jasira. She infuses Jasira with the uncertainty of your average teenage girl. She’s fierce when she can be, but terribly submissive at other times. Her looks of utter confusion caused by the actions of her father as he makes one ridiculous claim after another are priceless and ring true. She’s brilliant here, especially when paired up with Eckhart, who also does great work here in an utterly thankless role. Not so much the supporting cast, however. Toni Collette phones it in as a concerned neighbor who wedges herself into Ruoso and Jasira’s relationship. Peter MacDissi, who plays Rifat,isn’t bad but perhaps a tad too harsh for the material. I think the role is supposed to be funnier at times than he’s capable of bringing to the table. It always comes off as mean spirited, particularly the scene in the grocery store.
One last thing about the blood: There’s plenty of it. Particularly in the beginning. I’m not talking Jenny McCarthy in Dirty Love amounts of blood, but enough to quease the stomach. If copious amounts of menstrual blood ain’t your thang(and really, who’s thang is it?) then you might not be a fan of the first half of this film. My tummy did a couple back flips, I won’t lie. Still, if you’re into Alan Ball, then this is one film you don’t want to miss. You’ll be doing yourself a favor to see Summer Bishil’s performance as well. She’s one to keep your eye on.