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Arab-American Beauty Trapped in Suburban Hell

MOVIE REVIEW
Towelhead (2008)

24
Dale Robinette/Warner Independent Pictures

There’s no point criticizing “Towelhead” solely for its content – namely, the much buzzed about pedophilic subplot involving characters played by Aaron Eckhart and Summer Bishil. As Roger Ebert so often notes, it's not what a movie is about that makes it good or bad, but how it is about it. In other words: It’s possible to make a good movie about pedophilia. See “The Woodman” and “Happiness” for proof.

Rather, what hampers “Towelhead,” the directorial debut of “American Beauty” screenwriter and “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball, is its steadfast preoccupation with a bland, sleazy suburban milieu of cookie-cutter houses and perfectly manicured front lawns with a darkly sexualized underbelly. Within that world, Mr. Ball presents types rather than characters, scene after scene of phony drama and a narrative that grounds to a halt when it isn’t being shocking.

That narrative follows 13-year-old Jasira (Ms. Bishil), as her mother (Maria Bello) banishes her to live with her selfish father (Peter Macdissi) in his Houston home. Sexually curious and perpetually aroused, she takes a liking to Thomas (Eugene Jones), a handsome classmate at school, and Mr. Vuoso (Mr. Eckhart), a neighborhood family man. Both Thomas and – creepily – Mr. Vuoso reciprocate her affection. The rest of the movie plays out those two relationships and the manifold ways in which they affect our heroine.

In a film full of wrongheaded moves, a few stand out. The decision, reached by Mr. Ball and director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, to drench the movie in a sort of otherworldly golden glow lends it an awkward fantastical air. This is serious stuff and it very often is not treated that way. Further, Mr. Ball’s screenplay orients the entire production around the scenes between Ms. Bishil and Mr. Eckhart. It plods along between them, mechanically dissecting the details of Jasira’s life with her father and her fertile imagination and never generating much interest in them.

The title comes from Alicia Erian’s semiautobiographical source novel, but Mr. Ball never clearly elucidates how the racial epithet fits into things thematically. Sure, Jasira is teased and put down a lot. Certainly, her father spends a lot of time complaining about the various ways in which he, a Lebanese man, has been stereotyped during the film’s Gulf War setting. But where that connects to what the movie is really about – Jasira and her burgeoning sexuality – remains wholly unclear and the title comes off as gratuitous as the rest of it.

TOWELHEAD

Opened on Sept. 12 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Alan Ball; based on the novel by Alicia Erian; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Andy Keir; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, James Chinlund; produced by Ted Hope and Mr. Ball; released by Warner Independent Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Aaron Eckhart (Travis Vuoso), Toni Collette (Melina Hines), Maria Bello (Gail Monahan), Peter Macdissi (Rifat Maroun), Summer Bishil (Jasira Maroun) and Thomas Bradley (Eugene Jones).

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