Towelhead: Innocence Distorted

Racism comes a'knockin'.

Racism comes a knockin'!

There are so many places I wish to begin with this review, which as I write it becomes much more involved – more of an essay. So to keep my thoughts somewhat cohesive, I’ll just start over again whenever I feel like it…as a forethought, you may want to see the movie before reading this. It goes into details about themes and characters that may reveal plot elements. This is a movie to experience first if it’s something you want to see at all.

Alan Ball likes things that provoke (before they evoke – though surprisingly the film draws very genuine emotions out of the viewer by the end), or situations that perchance titillate in an uncomfortable way, but that’s a thought I’ll come back to. His new film, which is also his directorial debut, Towelhead examines the unfortunate sexual awakening due to racism of a 13-year-old Arab American girl, Jasira (Summer Bishil), as she finds herself suddenly thrust into the heartland of Texas.

A lot of dark sexual and racial humor follows (things that I think it’s perfectly okay to laugh at.) Such as, no one in the school realizes she’s Arab American at first because everyone thinks she’s Mexican. Though when the students find out demeaning slangs ensue.

In watching the film we see racism layered across all levels and from all different characters. Some of the characters that hate each other also, ironically, hate the same people, though they’d never take the time to find that out. The truly interesting thing about the racism in this film, that Ball handles so deftly, is that it isn’t always about hatred or anger.

Jasira finds that a military reserve neighbor, Travis (Aaron Eckhart) has strong affections for her, affections that seem even surprising to him! Eckhart does a wonderful job playing the role somewhere between confused and lustful.

Jasira hasn’t been taught anything about sex by her two parents. She accepts the attention, just as confused by what’s happening to her own body as Travis is by his attraction to her. You get the feeling that this isn’t something Travis would normally do. But he does. The question is, why? He is racist. And that racism, whether he feels it’s affection or not, allows him to see Jasira, not as a 13 year old innocent, but as an object, a tool to satisfy his lustful needs. Racism is at it’s most harmful when it’s destroying the innocent.

Towelhead, a new film written and directed by Alan Ball, the writer of the very uneven HBO series Six feet Under and now True Blood (which I haven’t seen) has crafted a film that in it’s best moments takes the awkwardness of growing into a woman and multiplies it a hundred fold so that a man can understand it, in hopes that they will respect it. In fact, though this film is about a young girl, it very much seems to be directed towards the dysfunctional side of men, as American Beauty was. And according to Ball, there are a lot of dysfunctions. In reality, there are. And in turn he tears apart the supposedly happy American family…bit by bit.

Multiplying it by a hundred fold though it becomes easy to accept some not-so-great solutions that Ball seems to think are acceptable. Yes, the way Jasira is treated by her Father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi who gives the best performance in the film), isn’t right. Rifat is right in being upset (though for selfish reasons in the film, which again doesn’t help) that Jasira is having sex at her age with a boy only a couple years older!

Yes, it’s most certainly and undeniably wrong, evil in fact, for a grown adult to sexually take advantage of a girl Jasira’s age, unforgivable in fact. And that Jasira’s Father is against her seeing a black boy. These things being wrong doesn’t mean it’s right for a 13 year old to have a “healthy” sexual relationship…with anyone. She’s only 13!

Ball has manipulated the argument in his favor. He would like us to think that at least Jasira having sex with someone her age is better than being raped by a grown man that should know better. One may be “better” than the other, it doesn’t mean it’s good for her.

Maybe it’s the morals that I grew up with that are interfering with my review, but 13 is too young for sex…even if it’s with a condom. It has to be okay for a parent to hold their children accountable. To keep them reigned in. So, by making the father, and everyone else that wants Jasira to dress appropriately, out to be selfish and thoughtless is to lessen any real moral truth behind the depravity that Ball handles very well.

There is a couple that appears half way through the film (half that couple being played by Toni Collette) that do have her best interests in mind, but their positive influence is a little late and it’s there only to protect her rather than teach her.

Alan Ball’s new film Towelhead is by all standards very well made. The dialogue is exquisite. Ball, as a director, knows when to draw the line (unlike Mendes who directed Ball’s first feature script American Beauty). We’re certainly allowed to witness some pretty uncomfortable things, but the moments themselves never seem excessive or manipulative, or even pandering. He never approaches with a heavy hand, so even things that could come off pretentious, sit pretty well. After viewing American Beauty for a second time, I felt all of those things overbear me and the original effect was lost. As a writer Ball has grown.

So, in Ball’s films who is he trying to reach? Racists? (Race seems like an issue in this film, if for nothing else than to show that racism lives in all people, and can be more harmful than we think.) Young Arab American girls? Or the people that take advantage of them, the men. As a generality there’s only one type of person that will find a girl titillating. That would be a man. And then the man would only be the one to feel most ashamed for feeling that way and hopefully learn a lesson. In both American Beauty and now Towelhead men are the driving force behind the taking advantage of the girls. Does Ball want us to find these sexual scenes titillating? So that they sit even more uncomfortably with the viewer? And is it necessary?

In American Beauty it was a man trying to regain his past…what grown man doesn’t dream of doing that? I would say that the nudity in that film was completely unneecessary. In Towelhead it is about how adult, all adults, infer maturity and racist stereotypes on their youth. Her parents seem to think that she should just know how to react and respond to her budding sexual tendancies. Towelhead is like watching a bleaker episode of South Park. The adults just don’t get it.

Though as bleak as the movie feels like it may get, there’s a turning point for all of the characters in which their humanity undermines the monsters dwelling just below the surface. Monsters created by this fragile world that we now live in. One with violence and fear. One that the war in the Middle East has slowly torn apart.

There’s enough talk about Saddam Hussein and the war to make you wonder at the deeper metaphors in the film. The human drama is so rich and authentic, it’s difficult to fully consider the first time through. If the metaphor is real it could be why the emotional turmoil that Jasira goes through after being raped wasn’t nearly as bad as people that I’ve known that are much older and have been raped. (Though if you don’t know what rape is and you are raped, would you react like you’ve been raped?) But that in itself is an entirely different monster that the film mentions but doesn’t toil with.

There’s so much going on in this film, I’d love to hear what other people think and feel after watching.

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