Friday, August 22, 2008

How do you review a movie which is well made in every way, yet because of its content is something you can not honestly recommend to anyone? That's the question I've been asking myself for the past two days, ever since leaving the theater after seeing "Towelhead."

"Towelhead" truly is a testament to good film making, it's wonderfully shot, well written, terrificly acted, has wonderful direction, and an engaging soundtrack. But the film itself is so cringe-inducing and painfully awkward to watch that I can't tell any of you that its something you should go see, or even rent. Coming out of the movie I felt like I needed to take a shower, a feeling I haven't had since seeing "KIDS" way back in 2000.


The movie is based on Alicia Erian's novel of the same name and tells the coming of age story of a half-Lebanese girl, Jasira, sent to live with her strict Lebanese father, Rifat, in suburban Texas during the first Gulf War. From the jarring opening the film lets you you know to go ahead and get uncomfortable because it's going to be a long, long journey. That jarring opening has Jasira, who I need to stress is only 13, standing in her bikini as her mother's boyfriend prepares to shave her (and I don't mean her legs) and tells her not to tell her mother. Of course her mother finds out and quickly ships Jasira off to live with her father, but not before telling her that it's all her fault that this grown man was attracted to her. Thanks for the support mom!

Once Jasira arrives in Texas its clear that her father is a very tough man, as his first words to her when she arrives is to complain that her plane was over an hour late. But it's not clear just how "tough" he is until the next morning when she comes to the breakfast table wearing boxer shorts and a cut off t-shirt. His response to her clothing is to slap her as hard as he can across the face and tell her to go change. This of course sends Jasira into a fit of tears as she runs to her room. Her father slowly follows her to her room and stands outside the door and tells her "Ok, I forgive you." And from her it only goes downhill.

The next day the neighbors come over to introduce themselves (it's implied that Rafit bought the house after finding out his daughter was coming to live with him, but its not real clear). The father, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), is an army reservist and quickly makes up his mind about Rafit based only on his ethnicity. But this racism doesn't stop the Vuoso's from hiring Jasira as their son's babysitter. Her babysitting job doesn't last long as the son, Zach, is only 3 years younger than Jasira and shows her no respect, and it is from him that she first hears the titular ethnic slut, towelhead. The reason she is quickly without a job is that she finally snaps and hits Zach when he continues to call her names after she's asked him to stop.

But this babysitting job last long enough for Jasira to find Mr. Vuoso's collection of girlie mags, which she finds quite appealing and begins to get off to them. When Mr. Vuoso finds out that she enjoys the magazines he gives her one and starts a dangerous obsession with her. This obsession quickly turns to more as he comes over to "talk" to her one night and ends up raping her "with his fingers" as Jasira later puts it. Jasira is clearly conflicted about this incident and doesn't know whether she enjoyed it or not.

This encounter leads to her starting a relationship with Thomas, a black guy from her school, that quickly turns sexual. Thomas' race is important because it reveals the racism lying in Rafit's heart. He forbids the relationship simply because Thomas is black, meanwhile he's dating a white girl, implying that inter-racial relationships are ok, as long as they are with the right race. (We get further insight into Rafit's racism when Jasira asks if she can have a friend over, before Rafit can respond she ensures her father that the girl is white, to which he responds "It doesn't matter what color she is if she's a girl. Don't make me out to be some kind of racist."

Besides her relationship with Thomas, Jasira continues to flirt with Mr. Vuoso, making up excuses to spend time with him. It seems Jasira like the attention Vuoso gives her even as she's not sure she should be liking, or if she likes where it might lead. Luckily for Jasira and for the movie their is one shining light in all of this darkness. Living in between Jasira and her father and the Vuoso's is Gil (Eli Stone's Matt Letscher) and Melina (Toni Collette) a married couple expecting their first child. It is Gil and Melina who first suspect something may be going on between Jasira and Vuoso when Gil sees Jasira getting out of Vuoso's truck one night after he takes her out to dinner.

Jasira doesn't respond well to Gil and Melina's interfering, but she will eventually be thankful for them. The relationship with Vuoso culminates with him raping her in her house once more, a scene which is thankfully not shown. Soon after this Rafit finds the porn magazine goes to pick Jasira up from the mall. On the way home Rafit confronts her and hits Jasira repeatedly in the leg as punishment. As soon as they get home Jasira runs next door to Melina and Gil's house in order to hid from her father.

Melina and Gil notice the bruises on her leg and allow Jasira to stay there. Rafit comes over to claim his daughter and threatens to call the police, but he is quickly persuaded to let her stay when Gil threatens to show the cops the bruises on Jasira's leg. This new living situation brings about the culmination of the movie with one of the most completely awkward scenes in a movie. When Rafit arrives at Gil and Melina's responding to a dinner invitation which all others have assumed has been canceled. So as Rafit, his girlfriend, Jasira, Thomas, Gil, and Melina sit about awkwardly it all comes pouring out, her father's racism, the rape, her sexual relationship with Thomas, everything. It's clear that Rafit truly loves his daughter in his response to the news that she has been raped, a scene which brought tears to my eyes.

The movie ends with Melina in labor and Rafit allowing Jasira to stay with her through it, and finally admitting that his daughter is a "good girl." Yep thats the ending, but by this point anyone whose made it through this gut wrenching film won't care, they'll just be happy its finally over.


While watching the film the only movie that came to mind for sheer uncomfortablilty was American Beauty, which it turns out is appropriate since that film's writer, Alan Ball, wrote and directed this adaptation. And under his direction the actor's flourish, they are so convincing it fact it's almost like your watching a documentary rather than a movie. Summer Bishil is phenomenal as Jasira and she convinces you with her every word that she really is going through this struggle to find herself. Peter Macdissi's Rafit is at the same time a troubled man with backwards beliefs and a loving father worried about his daughter. Collette and Letscher are wonderful as the light in this movie, and it's amazing that in all the darkness their characters can shine through. But it's Eckhart who really stands out here. He's recently become one of my favorite actors and he comes across as an extremely likable person in the real world. So it's a testament to his acting ability that he truly comes across as a creep here. Everytime he was on screen I hoped he would just go away and bury himself in a ditch somewhere.

I should point out that the title to this movie has recently come under attack, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations calling for a name change because of it's derogatory meaning. To this I say, duh! That's the whole point of the title, it's about a girl finding herself in a cruel world. You can read more about this non-controversy here.

Towelhead is currently in limited release and opens wide this weekend.


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