Short version: Towelhead manages to balance humor and drama in this cautionary tale of a 13 year old girl’s burgeoning sexuality.

towelhead Towelhead Review

Like many films shown at Sundance this year, Towelhead combined different styles (humor and drama), but does it more successfully than most. It’s the story of a thirteen year old girl who is half Lebanese / half WASP whose physical development is quite ahead of her age. Towelhead (aka Nothing is Private) was written, directed and produced by Alan Ball, the same fellow who wrote the screenplay for the similarly themed American Beauty a few years ago.

Expectedly, due to the content of this film, it has only been picked up for limited distribution at theaters but it’s definitely worth seeing if you can handle the subject matter.


Summer Bishil (who was 19 at the time the movie was filmed) plays 13 year old Jasira. The movie puts the audience in an uncomfortable position with the very first scene – in which she walks out of a bathroom wearing a bathing suit with shaving cream on either side of her crotch along the line of the bathing suit. Not only that, but her divorced mother’s boyfriend is volunteering to shave her down there.

Apparently she is a bit folllicaly overdeveloped and is being teased by the girls at school. Later, when her mother (played by Maria Bello) discovers that Jasira shaved and that HER boyfriend helped, she becomes outraged and sends Jasira off to live with her father in Texas. Her mother stupidly blames her for being overdeveloped and having breasts at 13 instead of placing the blame on her creepy boyfriend.

When we meet her father (played wonderfully by Peter Macdissi) we immediately get a sense of how detached and odd he is. When she gets off the plane, after not having seen him for who knows how long, the first thing he says is “Your plane was late.” Jasira, not knowing how to respond to that says “I’m sorry” – to which he replies “Why? Where you flying the plane?”

The film takes place just before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein when the U.S. first invaded Iraq, and I found it interesting that they wasted no time whatsoever telling us that her father (Peter) is Catholic.

While he may be Catholic, he still has the ultra-strict personality of a Middle Eastern father. The next morning when Jasira shows up for breakfast wearing pajamas but obviously without a bra – he promptly slaps her across the face and tells her to put on something decent.

We soon meet the neighbors, a very WASPish family made up of a whitebread wife, obnoxious and rude 10 year old boy and a bigoted Army reservist father/husband Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart, who plays Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, in a very risky role).

Of course Vuoso assumes that Peter is on Saddam’s side and the conversation turns cold very quickly. Jasira ends up babysitting their son and while at their home comes across the boy reading Playboy magazine. He ignores her when she scolds him and she picks one up herself, becoming fascinated and excited by the images she sees. She soon experiences her first surprise orgasm, and imagines herself as the models in the magazines.

One thing leads to another and Mr. Vuoso discovers that she found his magazines. While at first he seems to try to get through to her by asking why she was looking at them and that she shouldn’t be, the expression on his face soon changes as he looks at her closely for the first time.

Creepy doesn’t begin to describe it.

Eventually he violates her, with her at first going along but then being physically hurt by him. She is confused and doesn’t know what to do with her feelings, both physical and emotional, and she cannot turn to her cold father for comfort or advice.

She ends up being the girlfriend of a black student at her high school, who seems to be a decent kid. Eventually they have sex, and although her father doesn’t know that yet, he exhibits HIS racism by telling her she can’t see him any more.

Things continue to spiral out of control and eventually Jasira turns to a concerned pregnant neighbor who takes her in and educates her regarding self-respect, why older guys who want to be “friends” with 13 year olds should be avoided like the plague, and the definition of rape.

The performances all around were fantastic, with Bishil effectively conveying the innocence and confusion of a 13 year old girl, and Macdissi fascinating and funny to watch as he vacillates between authoritarian tyrant and extremely dry comedian. Eckhart was great as well and IMHO took a heck of a risk playing the role of a pedophile.

Yes, there is sex and nudity in the film, but it’s used to hammer home the wrongness of what’s going on. The way it’s used makes the audience extremely uncomfortable in a good way. Of course we all know that what is happening in the film is wrong on an intellectual level, but this film makes you see and feel the wrongness of it. You can’t help but be affected by it.

You can look at Towelhead from a couple of different angles, but as the parent of an 11 year old daughter, I look at it as a cautionary tale of exposing kids to sexual images too early, and not being a father that they can turn to for advice and comfort instead of whatever guys is available.

Our Rating:


4.5 out of 5
(Must-See)