September 15, 2008 | Comments ()

By Ted Boynton | Film | September 15, 2008 |


Perhaps it is cliché to observe that gifted artists, even at their most popular, often have uncomfortable relationships with their public. The difficult formative experiences and deep-seated traumas that can burnish innate genius also serve to alienate that genius from the world at large. At the same time, intellectual brilliance of any variety frequently leads its possessor to feel disdain for the unwashed masses who lack it. Oscar Wilde was a raging misanthrope not only because of his observation of and experience with societal disapproval of his lifestyle, but also because he was just goddamn smarter than everyone else. As a result, much of his work featured themes not only uncomplimentary to the England of his day, but scathingly antipathetic toward humankind in general.

Towelhead director Alan Ball has some traveling to do to catch up with Oscar Wilde, but he has already delivered more than his share of classic dramatic and comedic moments, both on television with “Six Feet Under” and in cinema with Best Picture winner American Beauty. Alas, if Ball has a single intellectual feature more prominent than his narrative talent, it’s the gargantuan chip on his shoulder toward the figurative concept of Middle America. Ball can lapse into excess as a result of his sometimes-blindered hatred for the insidious intolerance and bovine ignorance that pass for “small town” values in the Bush era, and these lapses can range from annoying distractions to destructive mistakes. The most frequent symptom of Ball’s weakness in this regard is a strong tendency to use provocative ideas and uncomfortable sexual material solely for the purpose of outraging the theoretical audience of benighted Midwesterners that seems to drive much of Ball’s work. “Look at how I’m shitting all over your quaint ‘family values’,” Ball seems to say, hell-bent on spending his career settling old scores over the hateful taunts and discrimination witnessed and endured as a liberal homosexual artist.

Towelhead, Ball’s adaptation of the Alicia Erian novel, teeters uneasily between Ball the gifted storyteller and Ball the cultural polemicist, though the film ultimately finds its footing as an entertaining examination of the challenges of growing up in a culturally fragmented society. Brilliantly suited to Ball’s skills with dramatic ensemble pieces, Towelhead portrays the sexual awakening of a 13-year-old Arab-American girl and the sometimes humorous, sometimes gut-wrenching effects of that highly charged development on her and those around her.

Set in Desert Storm-era Texas, the film centers on Jasira (Summer Bishil), a ripening girl who has begun to attract the wrong kind of attention from the boyfriend of her mother (Maria Bello). Incapable of making a decision based on anything other than self-absorbed narcissism, Bello banishes Jasira to live with her equally self-absorbed, authoritarian father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi). Despite the dysfunction of her mother’s home, Jasira desperately resists going to live with Rifat, and we soon learn why. Insecure and emotionally tone-deaf, Rifat lives for himself alone, a successful suburban businessman with a rigid, perplexing view of both his own infallibility and the appropriate rules of conduct for a young woman.

Upon arriving at her father’s home, Jasira becomes a lonely outsider even as her maturing body draws her into the most awkward phase of her life. Subjected to racist taunts at school and humiliated at home by her father’s utter lack of comprehension of the physical and emotional problems of a 13-year-old girl, Jasira seeks warmth and solace where she can find it: from the friendly, maternal hippie (Toni Collette) down the street, and just as readily from the creepily over-friendly neighbor played by Aaron Eckhart, responding to the peculiar kindnesses of both with curiosity and loyalty.

At the same time, Jasira begins to realize her burgeoning sexuality, first through innocent, quasi-masturbatory discoveries, and later with flirtations both appropriate (a schoolmate) and inappropriate (Eckhart). This strand of the story is essential to propelling the narrative, as it drives Jasira’s vulnerability and provides strong motivation to the other characters to protect her or prey on her. It is also here that Ball cannot resist sticking his thumb in the eye of that theoretical audience, repeatedly including graphic depictions of jailbait Jasira unwittingly preening for male admirers and eventually having sex. It’s not enough for Ball to make the viewer squirm over Jasira’s victimization — he feels the need to depict the victimization as if Jasira were an adult, while at the same time disconcertingly alternating the scenes’ tone among humorous self-discovery, prurient leering, and tut-tutting over her mistreatment. As a result, the film careens wildly in tone at times while also projecting the unsavory tang of titillation over the lovemaking efforts of a 13-year-old.

It’s not that the sexual depictions are gratuitous — as mentioned above, Jasira’s sexual experiences are the key to the film’s dramatic evolution. What is troubling about them is Ball’s apparent intent to either arouse male viewers with the sexualization of a child or, more likely, to provoke shock among viewers for the sheer sake of provocation. In his zeal to offend those whose beliefs offend him, Ball forgets (or never learned) that having the right to say something outrageous doesn’t imbue that outrageous statement with any profundity. It’s a noble endeavor to cause aneurysms in fuckwits like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity over a movie, but sexually objectifying a child is not an acceptable way to achieve that. (Summer Bishil, who plays Jasira, was 18 years old at the time of filming, but she is extraordinarily convincing as a newly adolescent girl.)

Despite this crack in its foundation, Towelhead succeeds for several reasons. Bishil is a wondrous ray of light as Jasira, convincingly capturing the fading innocence of a young girl beginning to realize the power of her femininity. Peter Macdissi, previously best known as Claire’s art professor on “Six Feet Under,” is pitch-perfect as Jasira’s mercurial father, a bull in a china closet who’s certain that everyone around him is discriminating against him because of his ethnicity. Collette shines as always, with her broad, open face and reassuring presence. Eckhart gives another in a string of fine performances, taking a difficult, unsympathetic role and infusing it with enough humanity to avoid creating yet another stereotypical suburban predator. The only slight weakness in Towelhead’s stellar ensemble cast is a miscast Maria Bello, who is quickly running through her hard-earned cred from films such as Thank You for Smoking and A History of Violence.

And then there’s Ball. When Ball isn’t whacking the viewer about the head and shoulders in service of his button-pushing agenda, the film’s script and direction are sharp and delightful, provoking laughter with Rifat’s clueless outbursts or reminding us with Collette’s soothing performance of those kind adults who try to look out for stray kids who happen across their paths. Ball the political scold isn’t always out of control, either; the school kids’ casual taunts toward Jasira and Macdissi’s prickly interactions with neighbors and acquaintances display a genuine understanding on Ball’s part of the depressingly banal subtleties of racial and cultural divides.

History indicates that it’s rare for the Alan Balls of the world to temper their scathing opinions, to channel their frustrations constructively. Ball’s work is far more effective, however, when his hick-baiting is dialed down from “nuclear blast” to “stiletto through the jugular.” Towelhead is an enjoyable, funny, tender film largely because of Ball, but it flies highest when he is at his most restrained. There’s a lesson there, and we’ll be the better for it if Ball learns it.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at thecarygrantrules@hotmail.com.

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God in Creating Man Somewhat Overestimated His Ability

Towelhead / Ted Boynton

Film | September 15, 2008 | Comments ()






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