Towelhead Review

Published 6 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)

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TAGS: 4 star movies, sundance, towelhead

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  1. > a cautionary tale of exposing kids to sexual
    > images too early

    What a weird conclusion. Since in the movie it’s only a way to show the audience that Jasira is entering puberty. And what if they’d shown her getting turned on by a football game on TV? Or Baywatch?

    ZAR.

  2. Have you seen the film? If not, you’re not in a position to comment on what happens in it. There’s a big difference between Baywatch or a football game and a magazine specifically designed to stimulate sexual arousal.

    I mean really… come on now.

    Vic

  3. Wow this review could have used an MPAA rating.

  4. It’s a difficult movie to review at a PG level…

    Vic

  5. Interesting, in this stupid country (USA), how it can be RIGHT for a girl of (ahem) 13, to be turned on sexually and flaunt an “overdeveloped body,” yet it is “wrong” to be sexually attracted to her. In other words, she get turned on by or with anyone she chooses, and it’s “right,” but as soon as the OTHER person is an adult, it is wrong, but only for the adult.

    What a freaking laugh. “She went along” does not imply immediate rape, so the only problem is a contradictory morality shoved down people’s throats by a pseudo-religious majority, that is arguably more perverted than even I am. Read any good headlines lately?

  6. P.S…..– FYI, people at the turn of the 19th-20th century often got MARRIED at fourteen. To say nothing of the fact that most kids in the USA today are sexually active by age 12 or 13. Reality is reality, don’t shoot the messenger.

  7. Didn’t you already do a review of this awhile ago?

  8. What made me feel so uncomfortable about the move that I walked out is the way it forced the audience to be voyeurs in what was an extremely explicit scene of pedophila. Viewer beware – if you don’t like child porn, you are not going to like this movie. Oh, quite aside from the fact much of it is ridiculous. A super uptight Arab father is not going to have screaming loud sex with his girlfriend within earshot of his 13 year old daughter. And nobody but a special ed student openly masturbates in class.

  9. @James2

    100 years ago at the age of 14 people were a lot more mature than they are now. They grew up working on the family farm, helping families survive and had a lot more responsibilities. They didn’t sit around watching Britney Spears and playing video games and having whatever they wanted handed to them by their parents.

    Vic

  10. @Michael E Piston

    “if you don’t like child porn, you are not going to like this movie.”

    You’re not supposed to LIKE this movie. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.

    And can you please share with us your background which makes you an authority on “super uptight Arab father(s)” and their sexual habits?

    Thanks,

    Vic

  11. @Patrick

    I updated it because the film has been released in theaters.

    Vic

  12. Ah I see, boy am I out of the loop.

  13. This is one film I will never see.

  14. It’s most definitely not for everyone.

    Far better than Hounddog, however.

    Vic

  15. I havent seen this yet but it certainly sounds better then Hounddog which I first heard about months ago.
    Towelhead was reviewed on At the Movies last week.
    One of the critics HATED it .
    The other one said it admirably tackled a powerful subject and that it was INTENDED to be uncomfortable .

  16. For a radically different take on the film, check out my review over at Rowthree.com

    Everything about Towelhead is laughably over the top. Delicately tackling tough subjects? I think not. Things are so designed to get a reaction that they are over-the-top funny. Kittens being run over, children raped, pregnant ladies falling on their stomach. Yes, I got dirty looks from giggling at what was on screen. No, I’m not an immature twerp, but when cinema is executed so poorly and so clumsily, you’ve got to sneer in its general direction. Caught this at TIFF ’07 and it was probably the worst film I saw that year.

  17. @Kurt

    Apparently the film was very well received at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival – and it made an impact on me.

    Considering you gave Iron Man 2 out of 5 stars, The Happening 3/5 (better than Iron Man?!?!?!) called Die Hard 4 “an abomination.” I’d say we have considerably different outlooks on movies. (Personally I would call The Happening an abomination.)

    At least we agree on Ghost Rider and The Dark Knight. :-P

    Vic

  18. The Happening is a far (FAR) better film than Ironman. And I’d file Die Hard 4 as guilty pleasure over Abomination (now if you want to talk abomination, let’s talk Les Wiseman’s previous effort, UNDERWORLD).

    And yes, I got dirty looks for laughing at some of the more ‘edgy’ parts of Towelhead (then called NOTHING IS PRIVATE) at TIFF ’07 when it screened in the large Ryerson theatre.

    Still, I’ve yet to have someone convince me that this is subtle, relevant or even a well made film. Obvious Sam Mendes could take Alan Ball’s writing and give it a bit of artistry, ditto on the directors for hire at HBO and Six Feet Under, and I’ve heard also with True Blood. Towelhead is the work of someone who seriously doesn’t have a clue how to direct a film. How does one get crappy performances from Toni Colette, Aaron Eckhart and Maria Bello? Those are some of the best actors working today. I’ll hand it to Peter Macdissi who comes out the least scathed in the acting department, and the lead actress, Summer Bishil is merely a prop in the film, not even a performance.

  19. I should clarify that Ironman is simply lazy-wish-fulfillment at its worst. Why put Iraq in if you aren’t going to do anything with it. Why use the “Spiderman” formula in structuring the story, why have him fight a bigger version of himself and have Jeff Bridges go ahh “Mwa Mwa Mwa, I’m a GROWLING SUPERVILLIAN!” after being simply a money-managing suit up till that point?

    The only thing going for it is Robert Downey Jr. who is actually wasted in the role, as he has done that shtick 100x in other films (watch: Two Girls and a Guy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Natural Born Killers or even Zodiac).

    The Happening at least has some truly crazy moments. Sure it’s not a ‘well made’ film in the normal sense of the word, but it is such off the wall crazy stuff (Camera-Phone Gore! Crazy lady in a house! The Hot-dog speech! Oooh, evil Wind!) and super-great whiny-performances from Mark Wahlberg & Zooey Deschanel that it becomes one of those great bad movies. There is far more entertainment value for the $$ in The Happening than in Ironman.

  20. dang typos, should read “all” in stead of “ahh” and should read 100x BETTER instead of just 100x.

  21. @Kurt

    I take it you’ve never been a reader/fan of the Iron Man comic?

    Regarding Iron Man and Iraq (actually, I believe it was Afghanistan)… That is the character’s origin story: Injured by his own weapon in a war zone, captured by the opposing force and forced to build a weapon. Except in the original version it was Vietnam. In the comics it just served as the origin and he didn’t go back there either.

    And actually the Middle East WAS the focal point in the film, as he returned there to destroy Stark weapons and it was made clear that his self-described mission would be to go back and destroy any others.

    Bridges wanted the suit so that he could sell it to the military – so, more money for the company.

    As far as RDJ, he really captured the Tony Stark character from the comics very well.

    In regards to The Happening, where youuse the word “crazy” I would substitute “idiotic” or flat out “retarded.”

    The Happening sucked, sucked, sucked.

    :-)

    Vic

  22. This definitely interested me in watching Towelhead, I love a movie with such a strong subject matter. films like these are what makes you develop a taste for film, imo, not just Hollywood movies (which can be cool and fun). But it’s important, at least for me, to have a range of tastes found in films, which unnerve you, make you think, and change your perception. So overall I’ll look forward to this, and will recommend it to my friends and peers, who I believe can handle the gray that is real world.

    @Michael E Piston
    “if you don’t like child porn, you are not going to like this movie.”
    Wow this is such a messed up comment. I detest the thought of hurting a child the way pedophiles do. But that comment feels the same as someone telling me, if you don’t believe what our president believes you’re un-American. It’s so broad and just seems to be said to put something down without true merit.

    Wow, Kurt, you really just hated on Iron Man for, I think, the wrong reasons. The villain thing, yeah that was explained and you could see it coming the whole time. Why Iraq? Because Vietnam would have made the movie dated, and Stark too old for Downey Jr. to play the role. I haven’t seen The Happening, so I won’t go into that, I might like it who knows.

    I haven’t seen the movie so I’m not trying to praise it, but it looks good and has my interest, I just hate to see someone put something down for the wrong reasons.

  23. @Kurt

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on Iron Man. I think we judge movies differently. I review movies less on the technical artistic aspects and more on whether they accomplish their goal (entertaining, horrifying, though-provoking) within the context of their genre.

    Just curious, what did you think of the first Spider-Man movie?

    Vic

  24. I’m not talking plot mechanics, I’m talking that the film seems to want to be ‘relevant’ by that Black-Hawk Down type opening sequence, and it wants to play things ‘real’. Yet thematically, it doesn’t really want to touch a subject like IRAQ, it is too busy with it’s fetishization of techno-toys and mildly endearing misogyny of its lead. But if you want to talk plot, why the silly-stupidity of building the Iron suit with just two guys in the desert cave and bomb parts, even by super-hero films that is stretching suspension of disbelief.

    I didn’t find Ironman lacking in production values or technical wizardry (in fact I loved the CAD-inspired credit sequence at the end), I just found the plotting, ideas and overall execution of the story to be as lazy as possible (outside the RDJ performance, which isn’t breaking new ground, but is still good). Thus the whole thing is Bland. Bland. Bland. perhaps the biggest crime in cinema is for something to be painfully mediocre.

    The Happening on the other hand is anything but boring. You are drawn along from scene to scene just to see what crazy M. Night is going to do next. Mark Wahlberg’s performance in the film is summing up his ‘star persona’ to a T, in the same way that Punchdrunk Love played with the archetype of Adam Sandler. the crazy ‘outrun the wind’ stuff, you just simply do not know what is going to happen next. Does this equal great or groundbreaking? Not particularly, it is idiotic for the most part, but damn, it’s an entertaining ride as summer blockbuster types go, as they usually tend to be pretty paint-by-numbers. Which of course Ironman is as paint by numbers as they come. The biggest crime in my book.

  25. Ooops, Afghanistan, definitely my mistake. And I’m not judging Ironman based on its faithfulness to the comic. Rather a silly thing to do, as the comic already exists. I want to see things adapt as it changes mediums, otherwise you get Harry Potter. I’ll take Lord of the Rings (I tend to like Peter Jacksons willingness to change the details but capture the spirit of the book), but his is a whole ‘nother blockbuster debate.

    I don’t see how Afganistan was the FOCUS of the IRONMAN movie, rather convenient short-hand to get all narcissistic on Stark and his company rather than use the Superhero stuff as a comment of our times. Lazy and Facile.

  26. Vic: No that is exactly my point, I’m not criticizing it on the technical aspects, but whether Ironman accomplishes its goal – it is flat, not though provoking and rather a bland middle-ground for its genre.

    On Spiderman, well, the first 1/2 of the movie is populist colourful moviemaking at its best. It’s witty, sharp and a heckuvalot of fun. As soon as everyone dons their costumes on a permanent basis (particularly Willem DaFoe) things don’t work for me. They fixed a lot of the latter half of Spiderman in the second film which plays better all around. Never got around to watching the third one, I skipped nearly all the ‘threequels’ last year due to franchise-fatigue.

  27. Want to really read the IRONMAN debate, try here. – http://www.rowthree.com/2008/05/05/r3-review-iron-manr3-review-iron-man/

  28. Kurt –

    Your link takes me to nothing. (Which I found rather funny.)

    The Happening, IMO, was one of the worst movies (by far) I have ever seen. The best thing (and only decent) part of that movie was the old lady. M. Knight should have made the movie about her.

  29. @Kurt

    Didn’t see The Mist. Thing is, neither of those were marketed as “goofy-serious B-films” and that’s the last thing one would expect from the uber-serious Shyamalan.

    I think he fell back on that as an explanation after it bombed.

    Vic