Towelhead

Jenny says:

Towelhead hurts. This is a painful, difficult film. Writer/director Alan Ball pulls off a tale of suburban dysfunction that completely out-dysfunctions what he did with American Beauty 10 years ago. If you are a person who sees films to be entertained, or to pass the time, or to laugh, then do not see Towelhead because you will hate it. In fact, many people will see this film and hate it. Their reasoning will be that their experiences are not at all what the main character, Jasira Maroun, experiences. They’ll say “not all teen girls are like that”, “not all men are like that”, “not all Americans are like that”. And, indeed, they’re right. Not everyone has a coming of age experience like Jasira does.

But some people do. And Towelhead holds up a mirror to a dirty, sad side of America that no one wants to see. But it doesn’t mean that that image isn’t truthful.

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Towelhead, based on a novel by Alicia Erian, is about 13-year old half-Lebanese Jasira. The film opens with Jasira’s stepdad telling her how’s she’s prettier than other girls her age and preparing a razor…the camera pans back to reveal Jasira standing there in her underwear with shaving cream slathered on her thighs and bikini line. Yes, her stepdad is helping her shave her pubic hair. And when her mother finds out, she immediately sends Jasira to live with her strict Lebanese father in Houston, Texas. Her mom tells her “This is your fault, you know. The way you stick your boobs out around him…there are ways to act around men and ways not to act around men…”

Jasira’s father, although not a sexual predator, is incredibly strict and sets arbitrary rules for Jasira based on his owned warped sense of morality. When she gets her first period, her father forbids her to use tampons since they are “for married ladies”. Meanwhile, Jasira is intently curious about sexuality, although still naïve and wide-eyed about it (much like any other 13-year old girl). It’s not long before her thirty-something, married neighbor (played bravely and awesomely by Aaron Eckhart) starts to take a very inappropriate interest in her.

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Despite the endless barrage of abuse and unfairness towards Jasira, Towelhead did not strike me as melodramatic or sermonizing. Some viewers will definitely disagree with me and see the movie as unrealistic. For a viewer who is well educated, privileged, and who has never experienced abuse or blatant racism, the film will seem over-the-top. However, many, many people out there and have indeed faced abuse and hatred all their lives and to them, I think, Towelhead will present an all too true portrait of a girl whom adults constantly use. Jasira is used sexually; she’s used emotionally (her mom tries to guilt her into coming back home at one point, showing that sometimes people who should know better have no scruples about putting undue burden on children); she’s used politically. And nearly every time, she’s blamed for the pathetic, wretched behavior of the adults around her.

The fact that Jasira is female and of Middle Eastern descent adds a pretty harsh element to the film. Ideas about blaming the victim, sexualizing young girls while trying to squash their very normal interest in sexuality and bodies, and making assumptions based on race are prevalent. Again, some viewers will find this intolerable…but is anyone willing to state that racism, especially against Middle Easterners doesn’t exist in America today? Is anyone willing to say that girls aren’t sexualized, or that Americans (and people of other cultures) have serious hang-ups about sex? Ok, ok, enough with the defense. I’ll go on the offense now.

Even with the depressing subject matter, Alan Ball infuses Towelhead with a dark humor that makes the movie tolerable and even relatable in some aspects. Anyone familiar with his previous work, such as Six Feet Under or American Beauty will recognize Ball’s penchant for bringing out the grim and absurd humor in the worst circumstances. Ball does not stoop to mawkishness. This is not a Lifetime channel movie (Hell, it’s not directed by Sean Penn either, if you get my drift). Although the subject matter is very emotional, the film does not amp up the emotion more than it needs to. Again, it merely holds up a mirror. Also, Ball does not resort to simple stereotypes. Even the bad guys (and there are many of them) are sympathetic in some ways. They are certainly three-dimensional. And Jasira, although a victim, is not as helpless as she could have been portrayed. She makes dumb and annoying choices just like everyone else.

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Finally, the movie also shows that there are good people in this world by giving Jasira a “rescuer”. Toni Collette plays Jasira’s very pregnant, hip neighbor, Melina, who realizes that something fishy is going on with Jasira and her predatory neighbor. She buys Jasira a copy of Changing Bodies, Changing Lives and gives her a key to her house, saying that if she ever needs to come over, she can–no questions asked. Melina is the ideal parent figure for Jasira—an adult who understands that Jasira is a child and needs rules, but actually cares about Jasira’s thoughts and opinions. She’s the first person to tell Jasira that she’s normal and not a bad girl.

Towelhead made me thank God I’m not a parent yet. I can’t imagine how someone raising a young teen girl must feel every day, knowing that this child of yours is going to someday soon (or maybe even now) face pressure to be sexual, pressure to be beautiful, pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations and not their own expectations. A 13-year old girl in America is very often lucky and blessed to be born in a country where she can vote, choose whom she marries, and go to court if she is beaten or raped. But a 13-year old girl in America is also going to be told (perhaps not outright, but in many subtle ways) that being beautiful comes before anything else, that being attractive to men is of utmost importance—and that if a man does something to her, maybe, just maybe, she brought it upon herself. In Towelhead, Aaron Eckhart’s character has no compunction about manipulating or downright forcing Jasira to do sexual things with him, even though she’s barely reached puberty; but when Jasira actually wants to talk about sex with him, he is incapable of doing so. Jasira’s dad is infuriated when he finds out that the 10-year old boy Jasira baby-sits called her a “towelhead” and a “sand nigger”, but at the same time he does not allow Jasira to hang out with her black guy friend, for fear of her “reputation”. Towelhead is all about the blatant lies we tell ourselves about sex, gender, and race. It presents a side of our culture we’d rather not see. And it is a terribly good, terribly moving film that will force you to confront things inside and outside of you that you’d rather keep buried.

Grade: 97

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2 Responses to “Towelhead”

  1. I agree. Children as young as Jasira are going threw some changes when they get older or when they are at that age. Jasira is experiencing things she doesn’t need to experience such as rape, sexual intercourse, and letting men touch her. And the fact that her father nor mother would let her hang out with the young boy because he is black is ignorant. And it was really sad to see a Zack call Jasira a Sand Nigger or a Towel head just because she is Lebonese. But, this just shows us what happens in the everyday life.

  2. Nice review. I actually really enjoyed this film. The book is really great, too. Sometimes the “real world” is a dark place.

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