TowelheadWritten and directed by Alan BallStarring Summer Bishil, Peter Macdissi, Aaron Eckhart and Toni ColletteRated RO6.5OGoes well with: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, In the Company of Men
Immediately after a press screening of Towelhead, the feature-film debut from director Alan Ball, I was asked if I liked the movie. Tough question. There's a lot to appreciate about Towelhead, the story of a 13-year-old girl's sexual awakening and the adult who takes advantage of her, but it's an extremely difficult movie to watch. Ball always writes good characters, and there are some impressive performances, but it's the sort of movie that makes you feel dirty just for sitting through it. Still, there are important things going on in this adaptation of Alicia Erian's novel.
After her mother's boyfriend takes a liking to her, Jasira (Summer Bishil) is sent to live with her father, a self-assimilated Lebanese man in the exurbs of Houston, just as the country is gearing up for the first Gulf War. Her dad (Peter Macdissi) isn't much of a parent; he's indifferent to her emotional needs and leaves her alone for long stretches to be with his girlfriend. Jasira's an outcast at school, and all this is happening as she gets her first period and starts exploring her own sexuality. So, it isn't necessarily surprising that she's attracted to the only person in her life giving her positive attention, Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), a mildly bigoted Army reservist who lives on the same cul-de-sac. Sadly, the attention she receives is sexual in nature—something she's attracted to, terrified of and repelled by, all at the same time.
Basically, the movie humanizes a predator. In one scene, Travis is in the men's room while Jasira waits at their table at a Mexican restaurant across town from their neighborhood. Yes, he knows that what he's doing is wrong, but as he looks himself in the mirror, he's not necessarily tortured by his decision—it's more that he can't quite believe he's suddenly found himself in this situation.
In Towelhead, the pedophile isn't necessarily a monster, even if what he does is monstrous—or, at least, when the film begins, he isn't a monster, just a man capable of becoming one. And this is an important distinction. Travis may be able to justify what he does to himself, but Ball never rationalizes it to the audience—he just shows what's happening, albeit via scenes that are graphic and disquieting. Even if we desperately want to believe we can spot the people we should keep our kids away from, they're more likely to be harmed by someone close to us. But if a movie is this hard to watch, it's easy to lose track of the larger truths.
As Jasira, Bishil turns in an unbelievable performance. Occasionally, she'll flash a smile that's a combination of pubescent innocence and awkward allure. She's distressingly convincing as a 13-year-old. Eckhart, who was reviled after his role in Neil Labute's In the Company of Men, may find himself despised once again. Toni Collette, always interesting, is the neighbor who sees the problems between Jasira and her father and Jasira and Travis, and Peter Macdissi gives a truly fascinating performance as Jasira's father. He's selfish and petulant, making up the rules of his new country as he goes along. He wants his daughter to succeed but is so wrapped up in his own identity that he's unable to see that she needs help. It's an intentional portrayal of a man who is, at times, unintentionally funny.
Still, all that talent doesn't obscure the fact that the experience of watching Towelhead isn't pleasant and that it isn't a gracefully made film. The look and feel seems more suited to TV, the medium in which the director has considerably more experience. But it's interesting that Ball continues to work on this razor's edge. He won an Oscar for the American Beauty screenplay, the film in which Kevin Spacey played a suburban man with feelings for a teenage girl. All his work is about that confusing gray area between sex and love and how it fits into the seamy underbelly of American suburbia.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.