Saturday, January 26, 2008


2008 Sundance Film Festival

After writing American Beauty and working as a writer, director and producer in TV, Alan Ball makes his big-screen directorial debut with Towelhead, which unfortunately disappoints on almost every count. Based on the novel by Alicia Erian, Towelhead is about a 13-year-old girl (Jasira) coming of age sexually, a disheartening process aided and abetted by neglectful parents, porn magazines, a lecherous neighbor and a sex-hungry schoolmate. I kept asking myself why anyone would want to tell this story. Here’s what I think:
1. Kids really are getting sexually active earlier.
2. Bad parenting can contribute heavily to this.
3. Societal values contribute as well.
4. There are perverts out there, one of which might be your next-door neighbor, or even someone in your household.
5. Good people should be proactive with their help and intervention.

I compassionately concur with all of the above. But if you’re trying to convince me there’s a problem, why use the outrageous example of a 13-year-old girl who finds a pornographic magazine while babysitting, looks at the naked women and immediately becomes a sex addict, masturbating during French class, s'il vous plait? I’m just not buying it. And why make the sexual situations so explicit? Just trying to make the audience squirm? Well of course they will, when a grown man is fondling a young girl. But that doesn’t make a movie “serious,” “relevant” or “important,” as Sundance often touts. That’s a cheap parlor trick and I resent the intrusion on my sensibilities.

Perhaps thinking that one road to the peaks of our outrage wasn’t enough, Towelhead adds another. Set during the invasion of Iraq, Jasira must also face painful prejudices and vicious taunts because of her Arabic heritage (hence the title), despite that fact that her father is an embarrassingly jingoistic U.S. patriot. I’ve never lived in the southern Texas setting, but I can’t imagine kids anywhere being so openly and egregiously racist. And then, upon contemplation, one must ask exactly what this unfortunate theme has to do with primary idea of youthful sexual awakening, other than to throw another shovel of shock value to an already malodorous pile.

The only thing that feels good in this movie are the other neighbors, played refreshingly well by a very pregnant Toni Collette and Matt Letscher (remember the bad captain in The Mask of Zorro, the other guy who has the hots for Catherine Zeta-Jones?). They take personal risks by proactively trying to help and protect Jasira, showing sensitivity and compassion. Nice effort, but not enough to rescue Towelhead.

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