Towelhead (2007)

14Aug09

towelhead

“Jasira, did an adult give you this?” – Melina Hines

Much has already been made over Alan Ball’s debut film title selection, outrage specifically to help promote and market the film at the expense of minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs. I see no reason to  elaborate on this issue since it’s been thoroughly discussed, a tired topic, the timeless battle of art versus freedom of expression.  When I first heard the title “Towelhead” I thought it must be something interesting, bold; a film that would have to create an impression.

The film opens with 13 year old Jasira (Summer Bishil)  as the driving force in which the other characters revolve around. She’s exploited from the very beginning for being a young flower in bloom by her mother’s boyfriend, who then ships her off with her old fashioned, yet modern, Lebanese father in Houston, Texas with the First Gulf War serving as a backdrop.

Confused and given no direction sexually from her father or mother, she’s left to her own devices. Her budding sexuality is first stirred discovering pornographic magazines while babysitting her neighbor’s spoiled brat. She has visions of starring in the magazines her self, the sexual freedom she finds liberating as her real life is a stifled cage of sexual repression. She has her first period and her father only adds to her confusion and lack of worth, making her feel guilty and inadequate. Finally, her neighbor Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) takes advantage of her ignorance to satisfy his own sexual urges, exploiting her innocence. Jasira then develops a “normal” relationship with classmate Thomas Bradley (Eugene Jones III) who unfortunately for her father, is African American. Jasira seems to have no where to turn, but reluctantly accepts the help and guidance from one of her neighbors Melina (Toni Collette), who giver her refuge when her father beats her ruthlessly.

The film operates on many different levels, melting together the immigrant experience with racism, sexual awakening and confusion from a young girl’s perspective. Some of the scenes are rather jarring with their explicitness, leaving nothing to the imagination of what it must be like for a young girl coming to grips growing up in white America as a minority, in which developing physically early adds to her anguish. Personally, I could easily identify with her pain during the classroom scenes of torment and cruel jokes, from the mispronunciation her name to the casual remarks of towelhead and sand nigger, tossed onto her like random garbage.

The blatant hypocrisy of her father, Rifat (Peter Macsissi), provides an interesting character who embraces America, denounces Saddam and promotes his own culture savagely as perfection. He prefers to date American women and their ideals, but forces his daughter to embrace their culture’s suppressed behavior, only adding to her confusion. Finally, his disapproval for her boyfriend because he’s African American, propels the film to it’s climatic conclusion.

The acting is strong, with a nice mix of veterans but even they cannot contain the powerful performance by new comer Summer Bishil. Making her big screen debut, her acting is subtlety restrained, pulling the audience in, having complete trust in her ability. She isn’t given much dialogue but serves as the center of the film, her actions and eyes easily expressing the deep emotions of a confused young girl. An impressive performance.

Overall, the film delivers a powerful message and gives a fresh voice to an immigrant experience seldom seen in film. Ball, however, sometimes seems a little overwhelmed with the material, not giving sufficient depth to some of the situations, making it seem a little over the top. He must be applauded, however, along with the cast, to have the courage and honesty to create this film which needs to be seen more often on a national scale, bringing to light the ongoing struggles of the immigrant experience as they try to find the American dream.

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