Starring: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckert, Peter Macdissi
Directed by: Alan Ball (debut)
Written by: Alan Ball (“American Beauty”)
As a first-time screenwriter, Alan Ball hit one out of the ballpark in 1999 with his masterpiece “American Beauty.” As a first-time director, not so much. Still he manages to find an aggressive and discomforting voice that combines “Beauty” with something as disturbing as Todd Solondz’s 1998 film “Happiness.”
In “Towelhead,” which Ball adapts from a novel by Alicia Erian, 13-year-old Jasira Maroun (Sumer Bishil) is sent to live with her father after her resentful mother (Maria Bello) finds out her boyfriend shaved Jasira’s pubic hair so the girls at the pool will stop calling her Chewbacca. This happens in the first few minutes of the film, so if it’s already too appalling for your taste, don’t even bother.
“Towelhead” continues down its dark and comical path by writing Jasira, who is a half Lebanese Arab-American, into some emotionally painful and sexually awkward scenarios. It starts with her flamboyant and cold father Rifat (Peter Macdissi), who takes Jasira into his home out of obligation rather than out of love.
Jasira starts exploring her sexuality when she catches the young neighbor boy she babysits looking at one of his dad’s adult magazines. Her interest in the female body is timed perfectly with the start of her menstrual cycle, her interest in boys and the introduction of a sexual predator (Aaron Eckhart), a military man who seduces the 8th grader and takes advantage of her naivety.
Not all filmmakers play nice so don’t let Ball give your children the birds and the bees speech if you want them to stay innocent. His repulsive characters matched with his dark and effective dialogue is piercing. Ball does, however, let the narrative get disconnected and allows some of the characters to become too cartoonish. Adding Oscar nominated actress Toni Collette (“The Sixth Sense”) to the cast as the only dependable adult in Jasira’s life was a solid decision. Her presence grounds these personas and doesn’t let them get overly outrageous
As a young girl growing up entirely too fast, Bishil is dead-on. In real life, the 20-year- old actress playing a 13-year old is so authentic, it’s terrifying to witness her life unfold without any real positive influence. Eckhart, who returns to a character more deplorable that the one in “In the Company of Men,” was bold to take this role. It works out well for him. He never shies away from the character and he is shocking enough to make us forget that he just starred in the biggest blockbuster of the summer. It’s always good when an actor can make you focus on present work and not what he or she is best known for during that specific year.
During most of “Towelhead,” you will wonder if Ball will do some of the things that the scenes are leading up to. When he crosses that line, it’s extremely coarse. It’s a noteworthy albeit flawed little gem, which, depending on the degree of explicitness you can handle, should be seen even out of morbid curiosity.