Before I saw "Towelhead", I thought of myself as a mature, respectable man of character.
I was accepting of what was different, of what was scientifically natural, and what was controversial.
"Towelhead" then proceeded to pummel me with social taboos and the sexual development of a thirteen-year-old girl, forcing me I spent two of the most uncomfortable hours I've had in a theatre this year.
Let me put it this way: the middle-aged man who wants to fuck the thirteen-year old girl is not the most repulsive character in the movie.
"Towelhead" revolves around sexually-burgeoning thirteen-year-old Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil) who has recently been expelled by her pathetic excuse for a mother (Maria Bello) to live with her strict-to-abusive Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi). There she becomes the sexual target of both a classmate (Eugene Jones III) and her neighbor (Aaron Eckhart). The film deals with themes of bigotry, sexual awakening, parenthood, and self-discovery. It would almost be inspiring if it weren't so consistently abrasive through its first hour.
Adapted and directed by Alan Ball, "Towelhead" is way beyond any of his previous work. The taboos he examined were already exposed and you could count on an approach that floated between forced profundity and dry humor which occasionally hits for a laugh. But this is no "Six Feet Under" or "American Beauty". If you had told me that "Welcome to the Dollhouse's" Todd Solondz had made this film, I would believe you and congratulate Mr. Solondz for including a few characters who aren't completely repugnant.
It's not that unlikable characters make a film not worth liking. The problem is when a film proudly carries itself as real but refuses to include anything positive in the world. For the first hour or so, Jasira's world is hopeless and hateful. Her father is a idiotic racist who's more concerned about his new girlfriend than his daughter's well-being; Jasira's only solace in life is less-than-covertly masturbating while at school as she struggles to understand the changes her body is undergoing without a guide. This is compounded by her sexually-aggressive neighbor Mr. Vuoso who seems to have no reservations about banging the thirteen-year-old next door while his son and wife are away.
While the rest of the cast performs admirably, it's really Eckhart who (unsurprisingly) shines. The man has a gift for playing completely disgusting characters who are utterly captivating. Vuoso's interactions with Jasira are wholly creepy and off-putting but never to the point where the audience decides to disconnect rather than share in the uncomfortable moments.
The audience has to endure many of these moments throughout the course of the film. Personally, I learned that will probably never be comfortable with menstrual blood. It's a natural part of the female reproductive cycle and it totally grosses me out. I appreciate it when I go to a movie and learn something about myself. But I could overhear the discomfort in my fellow moviegoers concerning Jasira's sexual interactions because Bishil conveys such a strong sense of innocence and we're all desperate to protect this girl. But the first hour of the film constantly makes the point that we're not going to be able to protect Jasira and give her the guidance her life sorely needs. It's a shame too because once she starts receiving that guidance and nurturing from her kindly pregnant neighbor (Toni Collette), Jasira becomes a far more interesting character. Until the final half hour, Jasira's personality consists of three emotions: confusion, curiosity, and shyness. That bland and borderline-manipulative mix can captivate an audience but it won't fascinate them. For too much of the film, Jasira is simply a blank slate upon which the ugly traits of the other characters are projected. Had Ball focused more on developing Jasira consistently throughout the film, I think all the themes would work far better and a story that feels like a real reflection of the life of a teenage girl rather than bland reflections on the horrible suburban life of a teenage girl.