Alan Ball's Towelhead reviewed.

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Sept. 12 2008 12:52 PM

Towelhead

It's no fun being a sexually curious, biracial teenager in Houston.

Towelhead. Click image to expand.
Peter Macdissi and Summer Bishil in Towelhead

As Jasira, the barely pubescent protagonist of Towelhead (Warner Independent Pictures), the 19-year-old actress Summer Bishil captures the terrifying combination of lubricity and innocence that is being 13. Her performance is the truest thing in a movie that, for all its good intentions, feels thoroughly phony and mildly embarrassing, like an extended PSA about inappropriate touching.

Towelhead marks the directorial debut of Alan Ball, screenwriter of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under and the just-launched HBO series True Blood. Ball's script is adapted from a 2005 novel by Alicia Erian, and it shows; the script is densely and fussily novelistic, packed with foreshadowing and metaphor and painstakingly highlighted "themes." Put it this way: When a white kitten named Snowball shows up, you just know he's going to symbolize something.

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Jasira is a child of divorce whose Lebanese father and American mother seem to be competing for world's worst parent. When her bed-hopping mother Gail (Maria Bello) starts to perceive her as a sexual competitor, Jasira is sent to live with her father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) in a sterile housing development in Houston. Rifat is a bundle of contradictions: a morally rigid NASA engineer who forbids his daughter to wear shorts or even use tampons but who sees no problem in leaving her alone all night while he visits his girlfriend. The isolated, confused, and horny Jasira soon starts getting into trouble. After developing an impressive array of hands-free masturbation techniques, she enters into a sexually compliant relationship with a black schoolmate (Eugene Jones) whom her racist father has forbidden her to see. More disturbingly, she flirts with the next-door neighbor Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), a married Army reservist who lends her porn magazines from his stash. Despite the worried interventions of another neighbor (Toni Collette), Jasira gets closer and closer to Mr. Vuoso, letting him take her out on queasy semi-dates that blur the line between fatherly affection and statutory rape.

Provocative without being thoughtful, Towelhead is an exercise in button-pushing that seems unsure of what it wants to say (except to assert, correctly, that being a sexually abused biracial teenager in suburban Houston would really, really suck). The very title, which has been the object of protest by some Arab-American groups, hints at a treatment of race relations that is largely absent from the movie, though the epithet does get hurled once or twice at Jasira by redneck kids. The story is also set during the first Gulf War for unclear reasons—maybe just to allow Peter Macdissi to growl "Fuck Saddam" at the television screen at regular intervals. Macdissi, a terrific Lebanese-American actor familiar from Six Feet Under, finds a stratum of likability in his comically awful character. The scenes in which Rifat provokes and shames his petulant daughter into confessing her transgressions have a glimmer of emotional truth. And Aaron Eckhart excels at playing nice guys with corruption at their core (witness his recent turn as Two-Face in The Dark Knight). It's too bad Eckhart, Macdissi, and Bishil are stranded in a movie that treats their characters as sociological types rather than flawed, funny, believable people.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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