The Flick Chicks

Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Towelhead

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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Poor Jasira Maroun.  The beautiful 13-year old can’t help but stimulate and excite nearly every male that she comes into contact with.  At first, it’s Barry, (Chris Messina) her mother Gail’s boyfriend who suggests and then assists the teen with shaving her pubic region.  Gail (Maria Bello) blames Jasira for Barry’s lechery and ships her off from Syracuse, New York to her naturalized Lebanese-born father, a NASA executive in Texas.  Rifat Maroun (Peter Macdissi) is an impeccably dressed, sexually uptight (except when it comes to his own activities) U.S. patriot and Christian who hates Saddam Hussein (the film’s set in the era of the Gulf war).


Saddled with a hypocritical father and a shrill, narcissistic mother, Jasira is left to fend for herself in a brand new, frequently hostile environment.

Jasira’s blossoming sexuality heats up even further when she discovers porn magazines and consequently, masturbation, while babysitting a next door neighbor’s 11-year old son, Zack (Chase Ellison).  His father, Army reservist Travis (Aaron Eckhart) sets his sites on the new kid in town almost from the moment he lays his leering eyes on her.

Meanwhile, school life brings ethnic torments (“towelhead”, “camel jockey” and “sand nigger” are all tossed her way) and a surprising suitor in Tommy, (Eugene Jones), an African American student that Rifat forbids Jasira to see.  She ignores her father – he’s out with his new girlfriend Thena most of the time, engaged in the very activities that trouble him about his daughter and her very obvious emerging sexuality.

It seems every man falls under the spell of the 13 year old, telling her over and over again, “You’re so beautiful” as if that’s the only criterion for a female’s value on earth (and a handy excuse for the boys-will-be-boys predatory behavior that segways into full blown sexual abuse).  Covert and overt racism is braided through the narrative as well.  Rifat tries unsuccessfully to conceal a seething rage for his neighbors who make assumptions about his Arabic heritage, yet his objection to Tommy is strictly racial.

Hugely pregnant neighbor Melina, (Toni Collette) becomes an advocate for Jasira, taking an interest in the girl after noticing that Travis likes to find occasions to be alone with her.  Melina’s husband, Gil (Matt Letscher) is the rare male who looks out for Jasira without wanting to sleep with her.  The couple becomes instrumental to Jasira’s wellbeing as events unfold to a surprising yet somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.

Summer Bishil was actually eighteen during the filming of Towelhead, so the graphic scenes of feminine hygiene, blood, urine and used birth control were not thrust (no pun intended) upon an underaged actress.  She plays the role convincingly enough, alternately clueless and savvy, with a naïve curiosity that is normal but made to seem shameful by the very men around her who lead her into victimization.  Bishil gets away with portraying a 13-year old and is a convincing portrait of sexual curiosity through others’ exploitation and manipulation.  The constant emphasis on her bodily functions can be a bit startling, but the camera manages to be discreet and graphic at the same time.

Peter Macdissi is mesmerizing as Jasira’s conflicted father, the humorous, menacing, dignified, loving and abusive authority figure in Jasira’s life.  Aaron Eckhart turns in a shady portrayal of a predator, mixing concern and lust skillfully enough to leave the viewer confused as well as Jasira.

Toni Collette and Matt Letscher are the sole voices of reason in the film, the only ones brave enough to insist on justice for Jasira and protect her from all manner of abuse.

Director Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) maneuvers his characters full throttle into embarrassing adolescent bodily functions, enough to make the average viewer squirm in their seat.  He adapted the script from Alicia Erian's novel of the same name.  Dark, dismal lighting cloaks numerous scenes in shadows like there are secrets that must not be revealed.  That holds true for nearly every room that Jasira enters.

After being privy to Jasira’s private matters for most of the film, the anticipated resolution comes about in an abrupt, unsatisfying way.  Loose ends, wildly flapping in the wind are reluctantly tied up in a tenuous way that seems more like a bandage than a true attempt at healing.

Towelhead is compelling enough to have you wrapped around its cinematic finger, but in the end, you may find that the uneven tone and questionable message is what makes it ultimately unravel.