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Towelhead: A Hat Trick of Anxiety, Trauma and Beauty

Posted by goldwriting on September 3, 2008

I’m sure there’s a joke out there somewhere to make about a movie with themes like this, but I’m not going there. So phbbbtttt…

Nothing sets the mood like walking into a movie already brimming with controversy before it ever hits a single silver screen. So it was with the new storytime vision of Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under. With those two titles under your belt, every audience member knows they are in for something darkly humorous, unusually frank and powerfully uncomfortable. Once again, Alan Ball did not disappoint on any count.

Towelhead is the story of Jasira, a young thirteen year old girl reaching the inevitable point in her life where changes occur in her body and her surroundings, but none of the adults around her represent anything close to a good role model. Without proper guidance Jasira stumbles tragically into puberty and has to fight off racism, sexism and the primal urges of others as well as her own. Nothing makes sense to her anymore and a new fight emerges when someone actually tries to care for her and make her recognize right from wrong.

This film penetrates through layer upon layer of social taboo and almost dares the audience to flinch, maybe even leave if they can’t handle it. The depths of humiliation and abuse Jasira sinks into are troubling to say the least, but there does seem to be a method to the madness behind the scenes. The story does attempt to say something important about young children, especially girls, who are victimized. Too many times once a tragedy has occured in a young girl’s life, she is forever treated like a victim and never expected to fully return to a normal, well balanced life, but Alan Ball strove to show a different possibility. He created a world where Jasira suffers terrible act upon terrible act, but continues her fight for understanding and once she does fully come to grips with what is happening to her, it becomes a fight to take back control of her own life. Also brought to bear upon the social mindset is the dispicable parenting that takes place. Jasira is an all too common example of divorced parents using their child as a weapon against each other and losing all recognition of the small impressionable person in between. It’s not to say what happens in Towelhead happens to every child, I surely hope not, but the allusions drawn here are far from unheard of.

The thematics will feel somewhat familiar to those in touch with Ball’s previous works, but he claims to have not noticed that until after filming was already done. Also part of the excuse is Ball didn’t write the story, he adapted the script from the novel of the same name by Alicia Erian, a middle eastern woman herself. Together, Alicia and Alan both defended the use of the title Towelhead in the face of protests from American Muslim groups across the nation. It’s a gray area to be sure. Alicia and Alan actually changed the name to Nothing is Private before they screened at Cannes because they were so afraid of the reaction (and it’s still listed on IMDB under that title), but after the film was sold, the studio actually asked for them to change it back. Everyone involved seemed to feel the inherent racism in the title and the shocking nature of it was integral to the story they were trying to tell. Opposers feel it is sensationalist and only helps further the use of such a deroggatory term. In my opinion, it’s a tough sell to try and make them change it since it gets embroiled in a censorship vs. artistry dispute, but I do see a double standard in our country where this movie can get released and supported, but Nas is forced to change the name of his last album away from N****r for exactly the same reasons. I think that proves the point that we may have come a long way in the fight against racism, but it’s only against some cultures, not all.

OK, off my political soapbox, back to the movie. Like I expected, Towelhead is incredibly well done, but equally uncomfortable. Numerous times I shifted around in my seat because there was no way to watch the screen and feel at ease with what I was being shown. Alan made this effect possible with strong unapologetic writing and brilliant casting. Summer Bishil takes on the impressive and heavy role of Jasira and delivers a stunning performace, which for her is nearly a debut (she’d done some children’s TV movies before, but nothing of this level or caliber). Her nievete in acting only helped to make Jasira more innocent on screen, creating even more torment when that innocence is threatened. It was a inceredibly brave role to play and I would not be surprised if her name is mentioned around Oscar time. Aaron Eckhart once again proves he can play any kind of next door neighbor, the one you invite over and cook hot dogs with or the one you make sure you lock the side doors against. This time he plays the more devious and dispicable of the two and his commitment to the role was impressive and frightening to say the least. Playing the role of Jasira’s father, Peter Macdissi had an entirely new road to travel as a man ill equipped for fatherhood in America during this day and age, while also fighting off racism both against him and from him. My feelings towards his character were very close to those of Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine. Both were paternal characters who were incredibly easy to hate, but when the film tries to redeem them at the end, it feels like too little too late. I will say in Towelhead, Peter’s character makes a stronger turn in the third act, but so much animosity is built up by then, it’s hard for an audience to empathize. Trying to save adults everyone from being portrayed as completely inept is Toni Collette. She plays a pregnant neighbor on the other side who begins to see terrible possibilities open in front of her and does her best to protect and shelter the young girl, sometimes even from Jasira herself. It was a nice touch to make the character pregnant since it added an extra level of worry and panic over whether something like this could happen to her own incoming child.

Recommendation: This is not a sunny afternoon matinee and certainly, positively not a date movie. But, if you are a fan of good, powerful and emotional filmmaking, strap yourself in because this is a heavy ride. See it in the theater for that extra added power, since it won’t be so easy to pause or change the channel.

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