Towelhead Movie Review

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Movies about females rarely get it right even if made by women, so steeped is our culture in the male perspective on the way things supposedly are. And Towelhead happens to be that rare story making a bold leap into the nearly alternate universe known as the woman’s point of view.

The daring and candid collaboration of a gay filmmaker and an Arab American female novelist, Towelhead is written and directed by Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) and adapted from the Alicia Erian novel of the same name. And neither of them is shy when it comes to pointing out just what they think is unhealthy about the straight male psyche in America, from sexual exploitation and racism to foreign aggression.

In a movie that was once more aptly titled, Nothing Is Private, Towelhead kicks open the suburban bedroom door and exposes often silent personal terrors that are both rudely shocking and uncomfortably familiar. Summer Bishil is Jasira, a thirteen year old Lebanese American girl packed off by her divorced mother Gail (Maria Bello) in Syracuse to live with her domineering warhawk dad Rifat (Peter Macdissi) in Houston, after Mom catches her young live-in boyfriend shaving Jasira’s public thigh hair.

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Apparently delivered from bad to worse, the already withdrawn and traumatized teen is brutalized by Rifat for not dressing modestly enough, while he himself engages in sexually uninhibited behavior around the house with his latest girlfriend. Jasira as a virgin is also forbidden to use Tampons. Meanwhile at school and on the eve of the Gulf War, Jasira endures racist taunts and ridicule when she’s derided as a towelhead, sand ni**er and camel jockey, escaping ongoing abuse only when she’s mistaken for Mexican. Rifat, on the other hand, finds a constant need to prove he’s more patriotic than anyone else around him, as he loudly advocates the murder of Saddam and cheers on approaching war at every opportunity.

To escape physical and emotional violence against her at home and school, Jasira befriends a sympathetic and eventually protective, very pregnant neighbor, Melina (Toni Collette), and dates a black classmate (Eugene Jones) on the sly. That is, until her racist dad finds out and goes ballistic. Jasira also babysits a bratty neighbor, whose access to his father Travis’ (Aaron Eckhart) secret stash of girlie magazines, lures her into an escapist blissful haven of libidinous arousal.

But when Travis sexually assaults Jasira before he heads off to deployment with the Army Reserve in Iraq, her world is irrevocably shattered, though much of it in mute silence and resignation. As Jasira sums up her young life thus far, it was a time of discovery of ‘menstruation and masturbation.’

The graphic, damaging sexual exploitation that Jasira endures is painfully difficult to watch, unless one is aware that the character is portrayed by a twenty year old actress with an uncommon gift for playing thirteen. And Towelhead walks an exceedingly sensitive fine line between cutting, cleverly comical social satire, and exposing those raw wounds of an emotionally shattered, heartbreaking female adolescence.

Warner Independent Pictures

Rated R

4 stars

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.