Towelhead movie poster
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Towelhead movie poster

Towelhead Movie Review

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In the day of political correctness, it's nice to see a movie that bucks such a trend while still having something smart to say. Towelhead, from American Beauty writer Alan Ball, is an unconventional drama/almost-comedy about race and sex in the early 1990's. Set in Texas during the first Gulf War, Towelhead revolves around Jasira (Summer Bishil), a 13-year old Lebanese-American girl who is beginning to find herself sexually. Though her father (Peter Macdissi) is also American, he has a strict view of what's proper and a harsh form of love. This, coupled with the fact that Jasira has discovered how to give herself orgasms, leads to a variety of awkward-to-bad situations, including a relationship with a black boy (Eugene Jones) her father disapproves of and a few run-ins with her much older next door neighbor, played by Aaron Eckhart. Maria Bello and Toni Collette also star.

Towelhead is an exploration of sex and racism, though I can't say I'm quite sure what the intent of the story is. Nonetheless, the movie is an intriguing and entertaining picture - albeit a disturbing one - that touches on subjects rarely seen in a major film. From female masturbation to rape of a minor, teenage sex and more, Ball doesn't hold back many punches, which is not surprising since he is, after all, the guy who wrote American Beauty (granted, Towelhead is based on a book by Alicia Erian). The movie is well-written, albeit in an unconventional way, and the result is a slow-boil picture that gets better over time. It takes a little getting used to, as many of the scenes are rather blunt and it's not quite clear whether you should be disturbed or laughing at any given time. I was expecting more of a comedy than what Towelhead actually is, but Ball slips in some dark humor from time to time. Ultimately, the movie is as funny as you want it to be, as some of the most serious moments are also the funniest.

The real strength comes from the actors, who all deliver terrific performances. Twenty-year old Bishil has the tough role of headlining a film with bigger actors than her and playing a 13-year old girl who in one way is completely innocent to the world yet is naively aware of her sexual power over men. Her performance is a strong one, as she manages to create a character who is both a victim and instigator of the many situations that occur. Macdissi is also very strong as her overbearing father, a man who must consciously make the effort to come off as nice. His performance is probably the strongest of the group. Eckhart, meanwhile, plays sleazy very well, and manages to do so in a way where we still feel some compassion for him at the end. Collette also delivers a quality performance.

Towelhead is not without its flaws, however. While never slow, a few scenes could have been snipped here and there to cut the running time. The first act takes a little getting used to, as previously mentioned, and there are a few scenes that could have been smoothed over a bit. Of course, it doesn't help that the movie is going to be compared to American Beauty, due to the strong involvement of Alan Ball and its suburban, sexually charged setting. This comparison may not be fair, but the movies are similar enough in tone and energy that Ball makes it hard to avoid. Unfortunately, Ball is no Sam Mendes, and Towelhead feels a bit plain at times. It works for this picture, but I didn't see anything too impressive here.

Nonetheless, Towelhead is an engaging and entertaining drama with quality writing and directing. It may not be good enough to qualify for the Oscars come March, but it is one of the better movies of 2008.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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