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Case Number 15353

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Towelhead

Warner Bros. // 2008 // 116 Minutes // Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // January 5th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Jennifer Malkowski is starting to suspect that writer/director Alan Ball isn't wild about suburbia.

The Charge

"How can you find yourself if no one can see you?"

Opening Statement

Based on a novel by Alicia Erian, this "shockingly" titled Alan Ball film is less about the race of its 13-year-old protagonist than it is about her budding sexuality. Unfortunately, Ball falters in depicting both aspects of this story, and what's most memorable about Towelhead ends up being its never-ending parade of underage sex scenes that manage to disturb (or titillate, depending on the viewer, I suppose) without educating.

Facts of the Case

The 13-year-old in question is Jasira Maroun (Summer Bashil), a girl who leaves her white mother's home in Syracuse to move in with her Lebanese father, Rifat (Peter MacDissi, Six Feet Under) in a Houston suburb.

towelhead

Jasira finds life there harsh because of her father's strictness and unpredictability and her classmates' teasing (the story is set during the Gulf War, so the title term is hurled at Jasira several times throughout the course of the film). She searches for solace through her two suitors: one a bigoted adult neighbor, Travis (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), and the other an African-American classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones). Meanwhile, she falls under the watchful eye of a kinder, groovier neighbor, Melina (Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine) as tensions rise on their suburban cul-de-sac.

The Evidence

Towelhead wants to shock you. Badly. It makes a lot of diverse attempts: its title, young teens talking about orgasms, young teens being hit, young teens being raped, young teens having their bikini zones shaved by lascivious adults, and some juicy close-ups of blood-stained panties and used tampons (used on a heavy day, I might add).

towelhead

The question we might ask ourselves is "why?"—regardless of whether we actually are shocked. What noble end justifies these extreme means in Ball's film? None, as far as I can tell.

If there is a message here about child molestation, the vaguely exploitative sex scenes and the clumsy characterizations dampen it. The molester is the bad guy, but not too bad. He gets just enough good guy points for Ball to feel like he's writing complex characters—and you'll laugh when you see just how superficial and silly the molester's redeeming "good deed" is. Even Eckhart, who has served up fantastic performances stretching from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight all the way back to a sadistic and misogynistic businessman in In the Company of Men, can't seem to overcome the flat and too-obvious lines Ball provides him for this role. And the child is a victim, until she stops being one. The most disturbing thing about this story, perhaps, is how compelling it's not. There's something unsettling about watching this type of atrocious behavior and having one's reaction be something like, "meh." There are far better, more complex, and more tasteful films on the subject—I'd recommend Little Children, just to name one.

towelhead aaron eckhart

If we're supposed to learn something about racism, the lesson is far too simple (spoiler alert! the lesson is: racism is always bad). Bad memories came Crash-ing back to me as it became clear that the racial themes boiled down to "lots of people are racist, even people who are also victims of racism." I'm not going to get into the problems I have with the "all racisms are created equal" philosophy that both these movies subscribe to (let's just say I think it lets white racists off the hook a little too easily), but I think at this point we've covered the above ground enough. And again, it's been done much better—how about Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which preceded these films by nearly two decades?

The film wants to be about a girl finding her voice, then Ball and Bishil should have made the girl more likeable, frankly. Perhaps to smooth over the five- or six-year age difference that separates Bishil from her character, she often plays Jasira with an irritating level of childishness—and an irritating level of irritating-ness, for that matter. I can appreciate the difficulty of the role, and there are certainly moments when Bishil shines, but not nearly enough of them. Most of Jasira's dialogue feels like it's written to shock us, even at the price of realism or sophistication in the script. For example:

Travis: "How old are you?"
Jasira: "13."
Travis: "Wow! You look older."
Jasira: "I miss looking at your [porn] magazines."
Travis: "Why?"
Jasira: "They make me have orgasms."

Towelhead has a few redeeming virtues, mainly in solid performances by Collette and MacDissi. As Melina, Collette provides both the moral strength and the uniquely no-nonsense warmth that make the latter half of the film bearable. Caught in the awkward situation of looking out for other people's children, she gives Melina just the right mixture of firmness and hesitancy. MacDissi infuses Rifat with some of the memorable eccentricity he brought to another Ball production, Six Feet Under, where he played the insufferable and crass artist Olivier Castro-Staal (you'll catch another Six Feet Under cameo in Towelhead's first five minutes, too). MacDissi manages to bring great humor to a character who is in many ways pretty despicable, even mixing those elements in the same scene. When Jasira gets her first period, for example, Rifat takes her to the drug store where he asks her conversationally, standing in front of a display of maxi pads, "Would you describe your situation as light, medium, or heavy?" A minute later, he refuses to buy her tampons and only springs for the cheapest brand of pads.

In terms of the disc itself, there's less to fault Towelhead for in terms of picture and sound quality. Despite the bland backdrop of the Houston suburbs, the filmmakers manage to shoot the story in an interesting way, with their visuals well-rendered on this disc. The contrast between Rifat's house and Melina's house, for example, is quite effective—the former feels elegant, but cold and shadowy, while the latter conveys love and warmth with its more cluttered set decoration, rich lighting, and soft focus (the last of these techniques can be a bit overkill, though). The soundtrack is crisp and clear, though there's not too much to hear other than ambient suburban noise and a not-too-memorable soundtrack from Thomas Newman.

The only extras provided are two roundtable discussions about racism and the film's title. Ball hosts both, joined in the first by MacDissi, Bashil, and Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ball is joined in the second by the book's author, Alicia Erian, and Rajdeep Singh Jolly, legal director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. These features are interesting, but overlong—the first discussion comes in at 30 minutes, the second at 50. They are not really satisfying as the only extras—we don't even get a theatrical trailer, let alone a commentary track. Both discussions center on the same question of whether the title of the film is justified, and the basic procedure seems to be "Islamic or Sikh representative objects to title" followed by "Ball defends title and points out that he is gay." Ball falls back on his sexual orientation a bit too often in these discussions, apparently subscribing to the belief that intimate knowledge of one form of prejudice makes him an expert on all forms of prejudice. On a related note, Ball also naïvely claims, "When you watch the movie, you become a towelhead. You know what it's like to be called that." It's a noble ambition, but one that is not realizable by any film, and certainly not by this one. You do have to feel a little bad for Ball in all this, who obviously thought he was going to get a pat on the back for making a movie that deals with race. To his credit, he is pretty open-minded and receptive to criticism in these discussions. On the other side, Jolly does the best job of articulating why the title is objectionable (and for that reason, I'd recommend the more heated second discussion over the tamer first discussion), saying quite frankly that he believes it to be a shock-value marketing ploy. He continues persuasively, "The million dollar question for us is whether a movie studio would straight-facedly consider marketing a movie as 'Nigger.' And if the answer to that is yes, we just have a fundamental disagreement about good taste and tact and what's appropriate and what's in the interest of the public…if the answer is no…we have a contradiction, because the term is as hurtful as the n-word is for African-Americans." While this "million dollar question" is hard-hitting and fair, Jolly hits on the real "million dollar question" for Towelhead at another point: "What does this movie tell us about race that we don't already know?"

Closing Statement

Considering that Ball created some of the best television ever aired with Six Feet Under, Towelhead is a real disappointment. It's tricky to pinpoint exactly where it goes wrong, though I've tried to do so above. Is it too crass? Not focused enough? Too heavy-handed? Poorly written? Poorly peformed? The unfortunate answer seems to be "all of the above."

The Verdict

Guilty of using good talent to make a bad movie.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 80
Extras: 60
Acting: 75
Story: 55
Judgment: 68

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated
Genre:
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Two Roundtable Discussions

Accomplices

• IMDb
• Official Site








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