Towelhead Review

Published 5 years ago by , Updated September 27th, 2008 at 11:13 am,

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)

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:
TAGS: 4 star movies, sundance, towelhead

57 Comments

Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to Gravatar.com and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.


If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it.

  1. B-Movie films don’t cost $60+ million to make.

  2. My goodness; what is the rating for Towelhead? NC-17? I hated American Beauty, so I’m going to have to give this one a pass.

    @Kurt

    Man, did you choose the wrong site. I think you’re probably the 2nd person on here who said Ironman wasn’t good. I saw it twice and loved it both times. There are some people who put it over The Dark Knight. You seem to be an intelligent man and I respect your opinion, but I have to agree with Vic on IM and The Happening (which I, unfortunately, saw).

  3. One of my absolute BIGGEST pet peeves in the movie industry is when they mis-market (or purposely mislead people via commercials/trailers) a movie.

    A perception of what the film will be about sometimes colors my opinion of said film.

    Sure, a movie can overcome that, but for the most part movies don’t, and the subterfuge is because the movie in fact sucks but they’re trying to put butts in seats on opening weekend before word gets out.

    There’s a way to market a B-movie – you make the commercials/trailers seem at least a bit funny/goofy or over the top. But with this film it was obviously supposed to be another “serious” sci-fi/horror film in the tradition of M. Night’s previous work.

    And as INK stated: B-movies don’t cost $60MM. I don’t believe for a second the studio set out for this to be a B-movie. They just ended up with an idiotic stinker and employed spin-control IMHO.

    Vic

  4. @John “Kahless” Taylor,,, you didn’t like American Beauty ? Hmm.
    I didn’t see it in theatres but I thought it was brillant on dvd, with the exception of the underage sex stuff. ;-)

    Hey John, and everyone reading this, do yourself a BIG favor and rent “This Film is Not Yet (R)ated”… (2006)

    Its an independant IFC film, availible on dvd… (Mature Audiences only).
    Everyone on Screen Rant needs to see this amazing insightfull film/documentary. :-)

  5. OK, trying again: http://www.rowthree.com/2008/05/05/r3-review-iron-man/

    Also (to stay on topic with this thread), my Towelhead review: http://www.rowthree.com/2008/09/17/review-towelhead/

    Now, Vic, I ask you what you thought about THE MIST, where I think THE HAPPENING is a bit of a kissing cousin. They are both goofy-serious B-films with style and craziness to burn. I’d take this over mediocre bland, even lazy filmmaking like Ironman. We differ on this, methinks.

  6. Funny that a number of us read THE HAPPENING as that before Shyamalan had to ‘tell us’. It’s right up there on screen!

    I’d argue that ‘what a film is’ is completely different from what its marketing (often) tries to convey. Sure, marketing a film wrong can lead to some false expectations (which in turn lead to disappointment), but if you look at what is up there on screen, and divorce it from pre-conceived notions, that is probably a better way of tackling movies. (I’m never going to claim that I’m perfect at this, but it is an ideal to strive for at times)

    Take for instance “SAVE THE GREEN PLANET” it was marketed as a rom-com which it most definitely is not, which may explain why the film bombed in S. Korea, but it is a bloody fabulous film for what it is (a mad-cap genre fusion).

  7. @Kurt

    Oh come on… now you’re getting ridiculous. By it’s very definition a B-movie is relatively inexpensive and/or schlocky:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-movie

    Your definition of B-movie is outside the range of what most people would consider one.

    And speaking of dailies, I don’t buy that for a second. How many utterly crappy movies have made it to the big screen where the dailies MUST have been screaming “THIS MOVIE SUCKS” yet everyone involved was seemingly oblivious to that fact.

    Vic

  8. @Ink – “B-Movie films don’t cost $60+ million to make.”

    That is the funniest thing I’ve read all year! Isn’t the entire block-buster world just B-films with mega-Budgets? You can’t seriously tell me that A Sound of Thunder, or every entry in the mummy franchise is not a B-film with loads of money? Now, certainly with Ang Lee’s THE HULK and Chris Nolan’s Batman films are aiming to take the superhero film out of B_film land, but seriously dude. B-Films are what fill the multiplex, they just happen to all cost over $60M.

    There is no flippin way anyone watching the Dailies for THE HAPPENING and looking at Mark Wahlberg’s performance thought the film was anything but. Hell, Signs is one of the great B-films of all times and it made serious $$$’s. Nope, I’m sure Wahlberg and Deshanel were let in on the concept early on.

    I’d say that I’d rather have a film trailer intrigue me than ‘tell me everything’ about the film. I’d rather be mis-marketed than over-sold.

  9. @Kurt

    Ah, now we’re getting down to our different point of views. I don’t consider Raiders, Jaws, or Star Wars B-movies. (Well, I suppose the first Star Wars strays pretty close to the line).

    When I think of B-movies, I think primarily of the classic examples of movies from the 1950s that were really shlocky and cheesy – movies where they had monsters that were obviously guys in rubber suits and that sort of thing. Movies that are unintentionally silly, not necessarily movies that set out to be silly.

    To my mind, modern B-movie are films like Grindhouse (intentional, yes), the recent Death Race movie (although I haven’t seen it) and pretty much any horror/sci-fi direct-to-DVD movie that you’ll find on the shelves of your local blockbuster.

    Vic

  10. Quite the contrary, isn’t Raider of the Lost Ark simple those B-Serials with A-level talent and budget, and isn’t a darn good chunk of blockbusters emulating Raiders?

    Isn’t Jaws simply a good old fashioned Monster movie populated with good actors and a talented filmmaker? B-level stuff with A-level pretentions. Ditto on Starwars. Aren’t Jaws/SW/Raiders given credit for the massive shift in 70′s era mainstream-art films like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, The Conversation and Chinatown towards the blockbuster mentality?

    How am I off base here?

    also you should read your own wikipedia link:

    This passage is directly copied from that: “By 1990, the cost of the average U.S. film had passed $25 million.[101] Of the nine films released that year to gross more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, two would have been strictly B movie material before the late 1970s: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dick Tracy. Three more—the science-fiction thriller Total Recall, the action-filled detective thriller Die Hard 2, and the year’s biggest hit, the slapstick kiddie comedy Home Alone—were also far closer to the traditional arena of the Bs than to classic A-list subject matter”

  11. Fair enough. Call it a definitional hazard. It’s been a pleasure mulling things over. We obviously are coming from quite different ways of looking at the movies, particular on Towelhead (and curiously Ironman & The Happening)

    It has been a pleasure turning things over in this regard.

    Cheers dude.

  12. Back at ‘cha, Kurt. :-)

    Vic

  13. James2, sorry, but everything you just said simply makes you sound like someone who is mad because you’re an adult and you can’t do anything dirty with young girls but you want to…

    Anyway the difference between a minor wanting something and an adult wanting something is that they are going under the assumption that minors are compulsive and unable to make rational decisions with consequences in mind, while adults are assumed to have the ability to make rational and less compulsive decisions. To state it simply, adults should “know better.”

    And this is not just some wild and crazy theory or some “religious” thing. This is actually proven science. Studies have proven that as you age, your brain either produces more of a chemical that inhibits compulsive behavior, or less of a chemical that causes compulsive behavior. I forgot which, I do believe it is the first, more of a inhibiting chemical.

    And from my personal experiences, I KNOW that younger people often act much quicker without thinking, doing things to simply satisfy a short term craving, while older people tend to be more capable of controlling these urges if they realize there are negative consequences down the road.

    So that’s why if you, as an adult, do something sexual with a minor, you are the only one to get in trouble. Because the minor doesn’t know what he or she’s doing, while you do, so you’re the one that’s taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable. Even if they think they are giving consent, they are not qualified (as minors) to make such a decision. Just like I’m sure every child on the block wants to give their consent to be able to drive cars. Should we let them? I’m sure 100% of them will say they are “SURE” they “know” how to drive cars because they’ve seen it done by their parents or on tv. I know when I was younger I thought I would know how to do everything if only the adults would let me. Now that I’m older, I realized how DEAD I would be if those age restrictions were not in place…

  14. Want to see the definition of a B-movie?

    Check out Sci-Fi channel on saturday nights at 9:00. Violá!

  15. “funny that a B-Film is defined so malleable.”

    Indeed. Although I disagree with your idea that genre automatically defines a movie as a “B.”

    You’re making me think too hard about a topic I consider inconsequential. :-P

    Vic

  16. funny that a B-Film is defined so malleable. You guys define it in terms of execution (low budget, shoddy craftsmanship, poor outcome).

    I define it in terms of basic content (monster movies, creature features, jungle adventures, space operas) – regardless of craft. There are a lot of truly great B-films, from Raiders of the Lost Ark, to Big Trouble in Little China to Hard Target. Some of these more expensive than others.

    Still, I find it difficult to believe that you guys could not label THE MUMMY franchise, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Stealth as anything other than B-Schlock, all of which had big budgets.

  17. How I define a B-Movie:

    A movie that is made without A-list actors/actresses on an extremely tight (low) budget and does not have a wide-spread theatrical release. It is campy without meaning to be and the acting is sub-par at best.

    When I think of B-movies I tend to think of horror and sci-fi movies from the 70′s and 80′s such as “Kingdom of the SPiders”, “Sleepaway Camp”, “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, etc. However, just because I categorize a movie as a B-movie doesn’t mean I do not like it. All the ones I mentioned are some of my favorites from that time. I guess I see it being solely based on one’s personal way of thinking about movies.

  18. @790
    There were some parts I laughed at but overall I was appauled at the adult fantasizing about the teen cheerleader and the only normal people in the neighborhood was a homosexual couple. I laughed pretty loud at the dinner and drive-in scenes.

    I’ll have to put that movie on my Netflix list. Sounds like a comedy; I need a good comedy these days.

  19. Good points John,,,
    Funny how bizzare films like American Beauty win Best Picture,,,

  20. Shatners the B-Movie king !!!!

  21. Actually 790, Lou Diamond Phillips is the B-movie king… Ron Pearlman is #2, Shatner is a far 3rd…

  22. Lou Diamond Phillips has a small part in Steven Soderbergh’s Che (well, he is in the second part, Guerrilla, of the two parts (The Argentine & Guerrilla).

    But yea, the ‘bats’ movies. oi!

  23. In response to Vic Holtreman, yes the movie did make me feel uncomfortable, and that’s why I didn’t like it. Regarding your question about my background, as a matter of fact I work with Lebanese on a regular basis, at least enough to know that the portrayal of the father was profoundly inaccurate in many details, from lack of an accent to a rigid manner so atypical of the warmth and openness of most Lebanese men, but all that is beside the point. All one needs to know about the father is what the film gives us – a rigid personality profoundly uncomfortable with his daughter’s sexuality. It is not consistent with such a character that he would advertise his own sexuality to his daughter, by having loud sex within earshot to openly cavorting with his girlfriend in his daughter’s presence afterwards.

  24. I think it is safe to say (certainly from my perspective) that Towelhead is much of of an ill conceived mess than an act of sharp provocateur-ism. I’m quite glad that this film has died a quiet and anonymous death than turned into a “Crash”-type celebration of quality cinema.

  25. @Michael

    Point taken – I defer to your experience.

    Vic

  26. To consider Grindhouse as a B-movie (i do as well) is proof that it’s possible to intentionally shape a movie to become one, at least in a partial way.
    This may or may not be the intention of Shyamalan with The Happening.
    Or The Mist.
    For both films, i don’t think that these cheesy elements do any good to the experience, except for satisfying the ego of the makers, just distract a bit from the remaing decent parts of them.

  27. There were some decent parts in The Happening? Hmmm. I must have fallen asleep before they showed those. :-)

Be Social, Follow Us!!