Nothing Is Private
Towelhead's intriguing premise rarely delivers in this sleazy story of a young Arab-American girl whose raging teenage hormones run out of control.
Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) adapts and directs this film version of the Alicia Erian novel that could have had the urgency of some of his earlier work but fizzles as a sexually coming-of-age tale in the non-descript suburbs of Houston, Texas. Jasira (Summer Bishil) is a 13 year-old Arab-American girl, who craves attention and normality but can't seem to find it in her cloistered world. When her mother (Maria Bello) sends her to Houston to live with her temperamental Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdissi), she soon discovers her emerging womanhood in encounters with her Army reservist neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart)--whose perverse flirting and attraction grows increasingly intense--and Thomas (Eugene Jones), an older black schoolmate whose friendship turns into a physical relationship as well. These episodes, and her run-ins with her ultra-strict old world father, complicate matters until another neighbor, the pregnant Melina (Toni Collette), manages to bring everything to a head.
Summer Bishil, with her coy combination of innocence and budding sexuality, is the embodiment of a modern-day Lolita, teasing the men and boys around her with a sweet maturity beyond her 13 years. She is almost like a blank canvas the male characters use to express their own feelings and prejudices. As the creepy neighbor, Eckhart crosses the line uncomfortably into pedophilia even though he is clearly given the green light by Jasira. Their scenes together are cringe-inducing and help march the dicey film into exploitation territory. Eckhart is fine in the role but in the scheme of things you have to wonder why Ball put him there in the first place. These sequences sleaze up the proceedings but really don't contribute much to whatever point the film is trying to make. Jones is appealing and understated as the shy Thomas who thinks he is the first to deflower Jasira. Macdissi could have played the narrow-minded father role on one note but actually elicits a little sympathy, making Rifat more empathetic than he appears. Bello. on the other hand. can't do much in her thankless ill-defined role as his estranged narcissistic wife, while Collette is at least warm and believable as a neighbor who takes matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, these fine performers deserve better, trying to bring the best out of a script that never makes a human connection.
Ball, who won an Oscar for his brilliant American Beauty screenplay and shepherded Six Feet Under on HBO, makes his feature directorial debut here and fails to come up with anything resembling a coherent story. Is it trying to be a sensitive coming-of-age movie? An updated version of Lolita in the Texas suburbs? A polemic on racism and Middle Eastern politics in the post Gulf War world? The point of Towelhead seems buried somewhere in the murky middle, and Ball's claustrophobic direction doesn't help matters. With American Beauty, he had equally challenging material, but director Sam Mendes managed to make poetry from it all. Ball falls prey to his own inadequacies and makes a movie audiences are going to feel awfully uncomfortable watching. Towelhead is neither sexy, enlightening or touching, failing where it desperately hoped to succeed.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.