To those who would argue that all the verve, ambition, and urgency to upset our bourgeois complacency has gone out of contemporary American filmmaking, consider the following: In Towelhead, American Beauty screenwriter and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball tells the story of a thirteen-year-old Lebanese-American girl named Jasira (Summer Bishil) who is sent to her father’s house in suburban Houston after her mother’s boyfriend admits to having helped shave her pubic region. (The mother, siding with the boyfriend, tells Jasira, “There are right ways to act around men, and there are wrong ways”—and then promptly puts her on an airplane.) That the shaving sequence is perhaps the least shocking one in the film should give you a sense of Ball’s fearlessness in doing justice to this dark, grotesquely funny coming-of-age saga. In the first 45 minutes of Towelhead alone, Jasira brings herself to orgasm while flipping through a porn magazine; watches her African American boyfriend, Thomas (Eugene Jones III), masturbate in front of her (the very boyfriend who, when he first meets Jasira, calls her a “sand nigger”); and becomes prey to her smarmy Army reservist neighbor, Travis (Aaron Eckhart), who presses his hand so aggressively against her genitals that he inadvertently breaks her hymen. By the time Jasira’s deeply conservative father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), throws a used condom at Thomas, every last imaginable visual taboo seems to have been shattered right before your eyes.
It’s an act of cinematic troublemaking that demands and commands your attention, even if it sometimes turns your stomach. Simply stated, Towelhead is the most brazen examination of the tumult of adolescence since Larry Clark’s Kids. But unlike that landmark 1995 film, which galvanized the culture and was a cause célèbre months before it was even released, Towelhead has barely raised a single eyebrow. It premiered last September under the title Nothing Is Private at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was met with a kind of mass critical shrug; it finally arrives in theaters next month, in a limited release courtesy of a company that no longer exists (Warner Independent, the specialty division of Warner Bros., which was shuttered earlier this year but is still parceling out the titles that had been gathering dust on its shelf).
Perhaps it’s that, as a society, we’ve become so wholly inured to the slick, scuzzy representation of teenagers’ sex lives, on shows like MTV’s The Hills and in movies like American Pie, that when a serious and scabrous yet fundamentally tasteful treatment of the subject comes along, we’re unable to see it as anything different. Or maybe it’s that most people are so terrified of the truths Towelhead serves up, especially about the way so many adult men seek to commodify and control the underage girls around them, that they’d rather ignore Ball’s provocations entirely. Whatever the reason, a near-great American film—one that also happens to capture the racial and socioeconomic melting pot that is modern suburban Texas more effectively than any other recent movie I can think of—is on the verge of being disregarded.
Based on a 2005 novel by Alicia Erian, Towelhead is devilishly and deliberately structured like a French sex farce, with Jasira pinballing from one erotically charged situation to the next, too young and too curious to realize that she’s in over her head. Except instead of comedy underlining the farce, there’s a sense of ever-expanding panic: How will Jasira survive adolescence when she is surrounded by men determined to dictate the rules of her sexual awakening? The morning after she arrives in Houston, her father slaps her across the face for wearing pajamas that he considers indecent; later, he refuses to buy her tampons and instead forces her to use bulky and embarrassing sanitary pads. As much of a brute as Rifat can be, however, he’s nothing compared with Travis, who treats Jasira with a mixture of malevolence and neediness and finally seduces her by guilting her into thinking that he’s about to be shipped off to the Middle East. (The movie takes place in late 1990 and early 1991, during the period of the first Gulf war.)
More than a few viewers are going to be appalled. Some will accuse Ball—who not only directed but also wrote the screenplay adaptation—of exulting in the very exploitation of Jasira he purports to be condemning. (A couple of ill-judged, American Beauty—style fantasy sequences, in which Jasira imagines herself frolicking with bare-breasted playmates, lend unfortunate credence to that complaint.) But one of the things that make Towelhead so original is that its missteps and contradictions are very much part of Ball’s larger point: This is a story about the struggle to form a sexual identity in an era in which titillation is peddled everywhere—on television, in magazines, even on the taxicab billboards advertising Houston’s most popular topless clubs. If the movie sometimes feels invasive and licentious, especially during the excruciating sequence in which Travis asks Jasira to strip and then has intercourse with her, it’s because Ball (much like Clark) is brave enough to acknowledge that he’s also part of the problem. Here is an elegy for the innocence that we long ago stopped affording our youngest people, courtesy of an artist who himself has an almost impossible time portraying teenagers with any degree of purity (after all, this is the same guy who conjured up the ultimate underage cheerleader fantasy in American Beauty).
Lest I get too gushy, a couple of necessary caveats: The subplot involving Jasira’s high-strung, capricious mother (Maria Bello) feels too broadly sketched and faintly misogynistic. And Ball employs a bland, unimaginative visual style that betrays his background in cable television. But in addition to coaxing superb performances from even the actors who are stuck in the underwritten parts, including Toni Collette and Matt Letscher as the married couple on Jasira’s street who take a protective interest in her, Ball captures all sorts of pregnant details about life in an ever-expanding, racially jumbled Texas city. Watch out