New Film Confronts Sexuality, Racial Stereotypes

Warning: Content May Be Offensive to Some

The new film Towelhead explores a teenage girl's sexual curiosity, which leads to some inappropriate decisions.

In this installment of Behind Closed Doors the film's director, Alan Ball, and the female lead actor, Summer Bishel, discuss the layered meanings in the film.

'Towelhead': An Awakening, With Laughter And Pain

Jasira i i

Exiled from her mother's home after mom's boyfriend gets too close, 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) goes to live with her father — in an environment that, if anything, has more traps. Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures
Jasira

Exiled from her mother's home after mom's boyfriend gets too close, 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) goes to live with her father — in an environment that, if anything, has more traps.

Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures

Towelhead

  • Director: Alan Ball
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 116 minutes

Rated R: Strong and disturbing sexual content and abuse involving a young teen, and adult language.

Travis and Jasira i i

Object of his affection: Jasira (Bishil) and her father's neighbor Travis (Aaron Eckhart) get closer than most adolescents and adults do. Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures
Travis and Jasira

Object of his affection: Jasira (Bishil) and her father's neighbor Travis (Aaron Eckhart) get closer than most adolescents and adults do.

Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures

Watch Clips

Note: Adult situations. May not be suitable for all audiences.

Each September, the Toronto International Film Festival serves as a springboard for movies that traffic in controversy and gutsy performances, and this year's will doubtless be no exception. But any bounce the aggressively titled Towelhead might have gotten from the fest has pretty much dissipated in the year (!) it's taken to travel from screening room to screen.

Since being picked up for distribution at the 2007 festival, this satirical coming-of-age story — based on Alicia Erian's novel about Jasira, a precocious 13-year-old Arab-American girl sent to live with her socially clueless Lebanese dad in Texas — has sat in studio purgatory.

It's easy to see why. Touchy subject matter — Aaron Eckhart plays a grinning neighborhood pedophile with a 10-year-old racist for a son — make its interracial, cross-cultural, onset-of-sexuality-in- unfriendly-territory story a tough sell.

And while Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) has found an insinuating, perversely smooth tone in his script, his less-adept direction (Towelhead marks Ball's behind-the-camera debut) inadvertently adds dissonance. Instead of being darkly provocative, the novel's mix of comedy and child molestation turns bright and off-putting on screen.

In fairness, telling a story that includes an instance of statutory rape entirely from Jasira's adolescent, mostly bemused point of view seems bound to work better on the page. Painting a comic portrait of adults who are every bit as idiotic as they are unpredictable — among them an unstable mom, a borderline-abusive father and that predatory neighbor — is one thing in print. It's quite another when what's center-screen and unavoidable is the instability, abuse and predation.

That said, the performances are nicely calibrated, even when the director isn't meshing them into a persuasive whole. Summer Bishil makes Jasira an appealing naif — smart, precocious and curious, if too easily led by hormones.

And Ball surrounds her with sharply delineated adult nutcases — Toni Collette as a concerned neighbor, Eckhart as the seductive creep next door, and especially Peter Macdissi as a conservative, Catholic Lebanese-American dad who ends up seeming less strait-laced than culturally straitjacketed.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.