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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Towelhead
Towelhead
Warner Bros. // R // December 30, 2008
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jason Bailey | posted December 22, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Alan Ball's Towelhead has the ingredients for a powerful and effective film, but its only intentions seem to be to shock and disturb. I don't mean to place a blanket embargo on shocking material; indeed, some of our finest films traffic in themes and subject matter that make us squirm, and a responsible filmmaker can use those feelings of unease to contribute to catharsis of great power. On the basis of Towelhead, Ball isn't a terribly responsible filmmaker. It seems he only wants to make us squirm.

Samir Bishil plays Jasira, a 13-year old girl of Lebanese descent who is coming of age and becoming aware of her own sexuality--how it affects her, and how it affects the (mostly older) men around her. When her mother (Maria Bello) finds out that her own boyfriend helped Jasira with some, ahem, shaving, she blames her daughter and sends her to live in Texas with her strict father (Peter Macdissi). He's a tyrant, prone to physical and emotional abuse, singularly unequipped to deal with the growing pains of a teenage girl.

Jasira is soon targeted by the pedophile next door, family man and National Guardsman Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). She is responsive to his overtures, for a variety of possible reasons--she likes the attention, she knows it would upset her father, she thinks she's supposed to be. Their flirtation escalates, to the consternation of her concerned neighbors (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher). Meanwhile, Jasira attempts (mostly unsuccessfully) to fit in at school and keep her boyfriend Thomas (Eugene Jones), whom her father forbids her to see because he's black.

Ball's screenplay falls into a formula early on and repeats it, scene after scene: Poor Jasira is mistreated or humiliated, she smiles or cries and then soldiers on. That's pretty much the first 90 minutes of the movie in a nutshell; it's like a Carrie remake with no payoff (but about as much menstrual blood). Every character, save for Jasira and the friendly neighbors, is absolutely loathsome and ignorant, and you can't wait for the film to end so you can get away from them.

The picture finally starts to coalesce in the third act (and, as far as that goes, there are moments of power throughout, fleeting though they may be), but it sure does wear out its welcome before then. Ball's primary previous film credit was the Oscar-winning screenplay for American Beauty, a film I continue to admire (in spite of the inexplicable backlash against it in recent years), though it does seem like Ball is repeating himself quite a bit here--or does he really think every suburban father is a pedophile? At any rate, that screenplay also contained difficult and potentially controversial material, but director Sam Mendes negotiated those minefields with subtlety, delicacy, and style. Now, with his turn in the director's chair, Ball pummels us, wielding his blunt screenplay like a sledgehammer.

As Jasira, Samir Bashil turns in a brave, fearless, and altogether effective performance--we'll hopefully see more of her in the future. In fact, the film's one saving grace is the tremendous volume of fine acting on display; Eckhart is creepily charming and totally believable, Bello crafts a distinctive and recognizable character in her precious few scenes, Macdissi manages to keep his potentially ridiculous character grounded and natural, and Colette is just marvelous as the neighborhood's much-needed conscience. These are good actors doing good work--it's a shame it wasn't at the service of better material.

The DVD

Video:

The disc boasts a fine transfer, capably capturing the unique photography of admirably experimental cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). His 2.35:1 frame utilizes an unusual, slightly bleached, high-contrast look (somewhat similar to they retro style of his Superman Returns photography); I'm not sure how exactly it relates to the storytelling, but it makes for some pretty pictures, with no artifacts, dirt, or compression.

Audio:

The 5.1 surround track isn't terribly lively; the soundtrack is dialogue-heavy, with the only real action on the sides and back coming from Thomas Newman's vibrant music. That said, the dialogue is crisp and clean, with no audibility issues.

Extras:

The only extra is the two-part featurette "Towelhead: A Community Discussion" (1:20:34 total), in which writer/director Ball engages in self-important discussions of the film's title and racial themes. The first discussion features Ball, Bashil. Macdissi, and Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Hussam Ayloush; the second features Ball, Alicia Erian (author of the novel the film is based on), and Rajdeep Singh Jolly (Legal Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund). I had literally forgotten about the controversy surrounding the film's title (no doubt encouraged by distributors Warner Independent--controversy can help sell tickets, after all), but watching this (rather dull) discussion of it highlights how arbitrary the title and racism in the material are. It's really not about any of that; in fact, the xenophobia feels more like a headline-grabbing red herring. A return to the film's production title (Nothing Is Private) and a few minor line changes, and the film could have been about a girl of any race; its portrayal of teen sexuality is much more disturbing and cringe-inducing.

Final Thoughts:

My hopes were high for Towelhead, but they were quickly dashed; this is an upsetting, marginally exploitive, and thoroughly unlikable movie. It has something to say, it seems, but no idea how to say it, and the viewer is left doing too much of the heavy lifting. There are, however, a number of fine actors doing some really admirable work, so for that reason (and unfortunately, that reason alone), you might want to Rent It.

Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.

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