Though it was known in production as Nothing Is Private, Warner Brothers has released its new film under the same title as the 2005 Alicia Erian novel on which it is based: Towelhead. And, despite the fact that it lacks any Muslim characters or any reference to Islam, the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a formal protest. They are not the only ones likely to be discomfited by a film that deals candidly with bigotry, adolescent sexuality, masturbation, and pedophilia, in which tampons and condoms are crucial props. In his directorial debut, Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty and created Six Feet Under, does not respect taboos. But, despite its provocative title, Towelhead will most offend those who insist on movies as mindless entertainment.
When someone in their bland Houston suburb calls her Beirut-born father a “towelhead,” 13-year-old Jasira replies, “My dad doesn’t wear a towel on his head. He’s a Christian just like everyone else.” The butt of the quip is clearly not an ostentatiously patriotic Arab-American but rather the ambient Texan ignorance. Jasira finds herself, reluctantly, transplanted from Syracuse to Houston when her mother discovers that her own live-in boyfriend has shaved her pretty daughter’s legs. Jasira is dispatched to her father, Rifat (Macdissi), a NASA engineer and a domestic bully.
In the opening words of Towelhead, Jasira is told, “You’re beautiful just the way you are,” and she remains lovely despite the dramatic physical and emotional changes she soon undergoes. In contrast to innumerable films about guys who come of age, this is a rare and compelling story about a gal’s sexual awakening, complicated by the fact that Jasira is living with a Lebanese bachelor father who insists on total paternal control. Rifat opposes his daughter’s school romance merely because the classmate is black, though a viewer might oppose it because the handsome, sensitive suitor, Thomas, is so much the model “Negro” he might have been played by Sidney Poitier 50 years ago. Towelhead is set in 1991, during the first Gulf War, when a neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Eckhart), awaits orders for his Army reserve unit to be called up and shipped out. Jasira finds herself alternately attracted to and repelled by him. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he seeks sexual fulfillment in the nubile minor living next door. Though Vuoso is lonely and pathetic, another neighbor, a wise and compassionate woman played by Toni Colette, advises Jasira, “Don’t you feel sorry for him, ever.” Vuoso is a pedophile and a bigot, but Eckhart’s nuanced portrayal makes it hard for a viewer to follow that advice.
Splashes of humor — a French teacher who massacres the language she presumes to teach, neighbors who vie in patriotism by erecting rival front-yard flagpoles, a dead kitten placed in a baggie in a kitchen freezer — jar with the gravity of Jasira’s predicament. Gratified and terrified by her power over men and by a new source of pleasure, she is a singular figure in American film. •