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:: Towelhead

Towelhead can be an ugly, at times humiliating, and often confronting film about a barely there teen, who although subject to various abuses, does not have the education or foresight to know that she is taken advantage of. It marks the feature directorial debut from Oscar winning American Beauty scribe, and Six Feet Under creator, Alan Ball. He also wrote the screenplay, based upon Alicia Erian’s novel of the same name.

Beginning via a succession of quick cuts, the viewer is introduced to the films main protagonist Jasira (Summer Bishil), a quickly developing 13 year old girl. After the boyfriend of her Irish mother Gail (Maria Bello) makes advances towards her, Jasira is sent to live with her Lebanese born father Rifat (Peter Macdissi), in a quiet and eerie middle class suburb in Houston, Texas. Rifat is a strict disciplinarian who does not know how to raise his pubescent daughter, and has entered into a feud with his bigoted Army reservist neighbour Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). The film is set in 1991, days before the Gulf War, so tensions are high and Jasira bears the brunt of racial jibs from bullies at school. However, she does manage to start a relationship with Tommy (Eugene Jones III), who her father forbids from seeing because he is black.

From this point the creepily off kilter Towelhead takes on an even more sinister approach, as the sexually aware Jasira, who is surrounded by self centred adults unable to give guidance, naively falls into one sexual trap after another, with no understanding that she is being abused. The first abuse comes from Mr. Vuoso, who is drawn sexually to the well developed teen and takes advantage of the fact that his attention towards her is welcome. The second is from Tommy, who embarks on a mission to deflower Jasira so he can “become a man”. Only later in the film will she learn what rape is via a book on female sexuality, given to her by her snoopy liberal neighbour, and lone saving grace, Melina (Toni Collette).

Yet from the depths of its seedy demeanour, Towelhead emerges as a damning commentary on the sexualization of young girls, brought on by an irresponsible culture which preaches promiscuity above all else. Also shown is the lack of guidance and education given by parents and/or adult guardians of these children, who are either too strict or too lax in their views on sex.

When comparing this work to Ball’s previous feature film effort American Beauty, three factors are strikingly present: Ball has contempt for the suburbs, as seen in his interpretation of them as middle class fronts hiding sinister secrets and abuses; He is fascinated with Lolita relationships between middle aged men and well endowed teens, with Towelhead’s Eckhart / Bishil sub-story a much slimier version of Kevin Spacey’s infatuation with Mena Suvari in American Beauty; and the military do not get a good shake either, with Eckhart’s bigot paedophile Army reservist Vuoso a follow up to Chris Cooper’s bigot conservative Marine Col. Frank Fitts.

But what is also clear is that Ball loves to take on controversial (some would say brave) subjects. With Towelhead he does not shy away from the films source material, and in turn he has created a powerful film which is sprinkled with dark humour that does not distract from the films serious tone: life can sometimes be funny in the direst of circumstances.

But the real drawcard is the film's amazing performances. Character actors Marie Bello, Toni Collette, and Aaron Eckhart all provide strong turns, and Peter Macdisi gives a funny, intimidating and simply magnificent acting exhibit on how to play the heavy without resorting to caricature. However, all are blown away from the amazing debut performance by Summer Bishil, who was given a daunting role which she played to her harrowing best. Although 18 years old at the time of filming (she will be 20 this year), she successfully conveyed the innocence needed from her character, and if this performance is anything to go by, then a bright future is definitely ahead for her.