The sexual attention that the 13-year-old half-Lebanese, half-American character gets in Towelhead doesn’t divide her in two; it’s enough to rip the poor girl, and the film, to shreds. With its sensationalist title (from Alicia Erian’s novel of the same name), you’d imagine that the central trauma young Jasira faces living in Gulf War-era America is prejudice, particularly living in not-terribly-diverse areas like Syracuse, N.Y., and suburban Texas. But from the opening scene in Alan Ball’s feature directorial debut, it’s clear the teenager has bigger issues to deal with than being stereotyped.
Jasira (Summer Bishil, now 20) is introduced with shaving cream on her pubic area, which is about to be shaved by mom’s seedy live-in boyfriend, Barry (Chris Messina). When her mother, Gail (Maria Bello), comes home and finds the evidence, naturally she freaks out—and then ships Jasira from central New York to live with her father in Texas, noting to her sobbing daughter at the airport that “this whole thing is your fault.” Jasira, she says, needs to learn that “there are right ways and wrong ways to act around men,” the wrong way apparently being a girl whose body is changing yet still likes to wear shorts and cute tops. Gail believes that living with a man, even if it’s her boorish, ignorant, jackass of a father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), will help teach her. Sure enough, the first morning Jasira comes to the breakfast table in her summer-appropriate PJs, Dad slaps her good.
It’s not the only abuse Jasira will face, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, and she seems to get it from all the adults around her, all the time. Rifat’s new neighbors include an Army reservist (Aaron Eckhart), who molests Jasira—and takes her out on a date!—after catching her masturbating to his girlie magazines, and his young son, Zack (Chase Ellison), who calls her “towelhead” and a host of other slurs whenever she’s baby-sitting him. Jasira’s schoolmates, seen primarily in a French class in which the teacher’s accent is straight Texan, also mock and insult her. A black boy, Thomas (Eugene Jones), invites her over for dinner after he catches her masturbating during recess—she does this a lot, and Ball doesn’t shy away from it—and gropes her as soon as his parents are out of sight. Her father isn’t thrilled that Jasira got her period, forbids him from seeing Thomas once he discovers he’s black, calls his ex-wife all sorts of names, and fools around with his new, scantily dressed girlfriend right in front of his daughter. When Mom visits, she’s still a cruel nutcase.
Unbelievably, there’s more. And the worst part? Ball, writer of 1999’s Oscar-winning American Beauty, attempts to mix humor into the horror. Apparently, characters like Rifat are supposed to be so racist, controlling, and narrow-minded, it’s funny.
Needless to say, it doesn’t work. One flaw is that Bishil, while pretty, never comes across as the Lolita-like temptress she’s allegedly supposed to be, so all the blame that adults put on her—fundamentally misguided even if the girl were a mini Angelina Jolie—feels forced. The piling on, though, is Towelhead’s undoing: Nearly every scene Jasira is in is sexually charged, and except for another neighborhood couple (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher), not one character in the film is anything but hateful. Collette’s sensible Melina, who starts to see what Jasira is going through and tries to protect her, is a bit of a reprieve from the battering—both for the girl and the audience. But ultimately Towelhead is as intolerable as its name.