Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Racism, Teen Sex, And Molestation: Towelhead Is Too Difficult For Me To Recommend.

The Good: Great acting, Great directing
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Graphic depictions of difficult situations, Utterly unpleasant to watch.
The Basics: A difficult film to watch, Towelhead is all over the place with its story of a young teenager coming into her own while she is taken advantage of.

For one of the rare times, I'm going to jump to the end of the review first and discuss why I am rating Towelhead so low. It wasn't long into watching this film that I realized that there were no circumstances under which I would ever recommend Towelhead to anyone, friend or not. I'm in the habit of objectively reviewing films under a pretty strict system from zero to ten and while Towelhead scores rather high on that scale on the technical merits, I kept feeling the wrenching in my stomach as the movie progressed and the protagonist, Jasira, went from being smacked around to sexually assaulted. So, for a moment, I'm ignoring the technical merits of the movie for my rating and going with my actual recommendation, which is "Avoid It!" There should be a lot more exclamation marks after that.

I went into my viewing of Towelhead excited. Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty (reviewed here!) and created Six Feet Under (reviewed here!) adapted Towelhead for the screen and directed it. From the name alone, I knew the movie would undoubtedly be difficult in one form or another, but I was unprepared for the gutwrenching, unrelenting nature of the movie and had I known it from the outset, I probably would have been more guarded about watching it. It didn't help that Aaron Eckhart, whose works I am becoming quite a fan of, was top-billed and that helped generate even more enthusiasm for me.

When Gail's sleazy boyfriend, Barry, helps her thirteen year old daughter, Jasira, shave in her pubic region, Gail ships her daughter off to her ex-husband in Texas. Jasira finds her father strict and conventional - their first morning together he smacks her when she comes to breakfast in shorts and a t-shirt. Jasira begins to adapt to living in Texas and even takes up babysitting next door for the Army Reservist, Travis, and his family. But soon, Travis's attentions become obviously inappropriate and he begins to make advances on her when he catches her and his ten year-old son in his collection of erotic magazines.

As Jasira begins to figure out what she likes and doesn't, she falls for Thomas, a boy at school who initially joins in calling her racist epitaphs with their classmates. Jasira's father disapproves of Thomas because he is black and he forbids her from seeing him again. But, by that point, Jasira and Thomas are having sex and when her mother dumps her boyfriend and wants Jasira back, she does not want to go. As Travis continues his advances, Melina, another neighbor, takes a concerned interest in Jasira and she moves to protect the girl with the help of her husband.

What puts Towelhead into a category where its greatness may even be debated is the quality of the acting and direction. Towelhead is packed with great performances. Aaron Eckhart enters the film darkly with a subtle sense of menace for Travis which his trademark smirk is completely absent from. Instead, he is quiet, holds his body tight and the viewer almost instantly feels the threat he represents. On the flipside, Peter Macdissi bursts into Towelhead with no subtlety. As Rifat, Jasira's father, he is forceful, authoritarian and shows no hints of his Six Feet Under character, the promiscuous metrosexual art teacher Olivier. And I cannot recall a role I've ever enjoyed Toni Collette in more than her part of Melina. Collette comes into the film rather late, but she starts to steal scenes as the savior character Melina. She is likable, smart and she makes the role resonate wonderfully.

But it is Summer Bishil who has the lionshare of work to do to make Towelhead work. Bishil plays Jasira and she is fearless in the role of the early-bloomer. Bishil, who was over eighteen when the movie was filmed, is entirely credible in the demure way she plays the thirteen year old Jasira. She plays Jasira as smart, but uncertain, intelligent but ignorant and the full range of emotions she is forced to play illustrates that she is not a monolithic actress. As well, Bishil's portrayal of experiencing pain is so convincing that her performance is part of what makes the movie so hard to watch.

The other aspect of the technicals that makes Towelhead difficult to watch is the direction. Alan Ball's directing, like Bishil's acting, is fearless and as a result, the viewer is compelled to endure shots that put the viewer rather unfortunately in the head of some of the film's sickest characters. Travis is a pedophile and the way he looks at Jasira is disgusting and lurid; when Ball gives the viewer no choice but to see what Travis is looking at, the movie takes a turn into the pornographic (whether or not Bishil was over eighteen when the movie was filmed, her character is thirteen). This makes the movie uncomfortable and - for lack of a better term - just plain icky.

And here is where Towelhead falls down: it's in the content. The movie could have worked as a girl's sexual exploration. Thirteen year olds are known, wrongly or rightly, to have sex, usually with people just outside their peer group. That type relationship makes it into the movie with Jasira and Thomas. If the movie focused on young love, that would be one thing, but for far too much of the movie, Towelhead is consumed with sexual abuse and it's unpleasant and lacks anything in the way of entertainment value.

I can applaud movies that seek to expose the crimes of suburbia and I appreciate when Towelhead breaks the mold to present a story of sexual abuse, but frankly, I don't want to see it. I could live the rest of my life without seeing another movie containing explicit sexual abuse. Not all of us live in a cave on the issue; we know sexual abuse happens and, like Melina in the movie, we intervene when appropriate. But there's enough of that in real life that when I sit down to watch a movie, I'm not in the mood to watch that. Ever.

On DVD, Towelhead features only a featurette on the movie's controversial nature. Alan Ball participates in two panel discussions - one with actors, one with the novelist upon which this movie is based - to explore what the film is trying to say and they are interesting and appropriately academic. They did not, however, make me want to watch the movie again.

In conclusion, I don't fail to acknowledge that Towelhead is great for the very reasons it is difficult, but I don't think it's worth watching. I suspect it would be traumatic to survivors of abuse, titillate pedophiles and make everyone else incredibly uncomfortable, I know it has bugged me since I watched it. Ultimately, that made it easy for me to say "avoid it."

For other works with Aaron Eckhart, check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
Love Happens
The Dark Knight
Frasier Season Eleven

7.5/10 (not recommend)

For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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