|Aaron Eckhart||Mr. Vuoso|
|Directed by||Alan Ball|
Towelhead is a movie that asks the question: "Just how much punishment do you feel like putting yourself through today?" There is hardly a scene that does not produce exquisite discomfort and a strong desire to be somewhere else. Some will say this is a measure of what a powerful film it is. That is undoubtedly a matter of taste. Towelhead offers a veritable smorgasbord of unpleasantness: statutory rape, pedophilia, inappropriate behavior, child abuse, masturbation, menstruation, male fingers drenched in hymeneal blood, a bloody tampon, racism, bullying, and even a dead kitten. With a bill of fare like that, what's not to like?
Jasira (Summer Bishil) is the daughter of a slatternly Anglo mother, Gail (Maria Bello) and a Lebanese immigrant father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi). The marriage is long since over, and Jasira lives with Mom and her sleazy boyfriend in Syracuse, NY. When Gail catches the boyfriend helping the pubescent Jasira shave her pubic hair, she naturally hits the roof, and throws the rascal out. No, not that rascal. She blames her daughter, and packs her off to Houston to live with the father, who is an engineer with NASA.
Rifat is no prize either. On Jasira's first morning in her father's house, she comes down to breakfast wearing a tee shirt and panties. Rifat slaps her and orders her to go put on some clothes. He is a martinet, cold, abusive, and very strict. But he sends mixed signals. He parties in his undershirt with his girlfriend in front of his daughter, and he often leaves her home alone while he works late or visits his girlfriend.
The time is 1990, the launching of the Gulf War. The neighbors assume that Rifat is a Muslim and a Saddam sympathizer. He is neither of the above, rather a super-patriot who keeps his American flag illuminated and flying at night, explaining to Jasira that it's more patriotic than striking it at dusk.
One of the neighbors is Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), an Army Reservist with a cookie-cutter blonde wife and an obnoxious young son for whom Jasira babysits. The kid calls her "towelhead", and other racist insults which he has presumably learned in the bosom of his family. He has discovered his father's stash of girlie magazines, which he ungraciously allows Jasira to look at when she comes over.
The sexy photographs in the magazines awaken erotic feelings in the girl, and send her nascent hormones into overdrive. She discovers that squirming in her seat brings feelings of pleasure, and she squirms everywhere, at home, in the classroom, in the playground.
One afternoon Mr. Vuoso comes home unexpectedly and finds his son and the babysitter looking at his magazines. He scolds Jasira. "You're too young to be reading that stuff", he tells her. And then, intrigued, he asks "How old are you?" "Ummmm… thirteen", she replies. That, apparently, is old enough.
It's certainly old enough for Thomas (Eugene Jones), her schoolmate. He's black, which rules him out as a suitable companion for his daughter as far as Rifat is concerned. In his adopted land of equal opportunity, Rifat is equally as racist as his white neighbors. Thomas is a nice boy, but even nice boys only want one thing, which Jasira is eager provide, and the movie in the end seems to suggest that consensual sex between early teens is okay (there is at least a redeeming emphasis on condoms and safe sex).
We are well into the second hour of this movie before we get to know anyone representing the human race as we would like to think of it. This comes in the form of another neighbor, the very pregnant Melina (Toni Collette). Melina suspects what may be going on with Mr. Vuoso, and she also sees the bruises from the physical abuse Rifat deals out to his daughter. She offers Jasira affection, counsel, sanctuary, and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
In a movie like this, that deals explicitly and uncomfortably with underage sex (think of Todd Solondz's Happiness), the mind easily turns to wondering just how old the actors are. Summer Bishil is small and looks young, but she was born in 1988, which would make her about 19 when this movie was shot, safely out of jailbait range. But there is an artistic price to pay for this safety. There is a sexual knowingness in her eyes that bespeaks several more stages of adolescent experience than we expect in a girl just entering puberty. The point of her character is that she desperately wants to explore the sexuality that is beginning to explode inside her, but she hasn't a clue what it all means. Also, if you want to be picky, Bishil looks about as Lebanese as Gong Li. The beautiful young actress is of American and East Indian parentage, and her casting seems to be a case of writer-director Alan Ball deciding that ethnic is ethnic.
Ball won an Oscar for his screenplay of American Beauty, and has gone on to great success as writer, producer, and director of the cable series Six Feet Under and True Blood. He likes to shock and to amuse, and he goes after both here. There are a few elements of dark comedy scattered through the emotional debris of Towelhead, but you may not be in the mood to laugh.
Except, possibly, at Snowball, the Vuoso's little white kitten, run over by Rifat, wrapped in baggies, and stuck in the freezer. Now there's a metaphor worthy of at least a chuckle.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be