Towelhead (2007)

Posted: November 7, 2009 in Jasmin Ramsey
Tags: , ,

TOWELHEAD
DVD: Towelhead

Normal is hard to watch in “Towelhead
Review by Jasmin Ramsey, P U L S E

Towelhead” is based on a novel by Alicia Erian and directed by “American Beauty” writer Alan Ball

While taboo topics like underage female sexuality and racism in America will inspire controversy on their own, combining them as the main focus of a feature film guarantees discomfort from all fronts. In fact, the unease viewers experience while watching Alan Ball’s “Towelhead” is constant throughout, beginning with the opening scene which narrows in on an older stay-at-home boyfriend shaving the bikini line of his girlfriend’s 13 year old daughter Jasira, played by 18 year old Summer Bishil.

Initially appearing in 2007 at the Toronto Film Festival under the name of “Nothing is Private,” “Towelhead” made its first US appearance in 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival where it garnered a mix of mediocre to negative reviews. Although the decision to change the name of the film several months after its release spurred some initial buzz, it still generated low revenue and viewership. Even though the Council on America-Islam Relations directly asked Warner Brothers and Warner Independent Films to rescind their decision, the director remained firm on his choice to change the film’s name to the title of the novel on which it was based:

I believe one of the unintended consequences of forbidding such words to be spoken is imbuing those words with more power than they should ever have, and helping create the illusion that the bigotry and racism expressed by such cruel epithets is less prevalent than it actually is, which we all know is sadly not the case.

Alicia Erian, the author of the novel, also defended the decision:

As an Arab-American woman, I am of course aware that the title of my book is an ethnic slur. Indeed, I selected the title to highlight one of the novel’s major themes: Racism. In the tradition of Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger, the Jewish magazine Heeb or the feminist magazine Bitch, the title is rude and shocking, but it is not gratuitous. Besides the fact that the main character must endure taunting about her ethnicity (including being called a towelhead), so much of the novel’s plot is fueled [sic] by the characters’ attitudes toward race.

First-time director Ball, who wrote the screenplay for “American Beauty” and was therefore no stranger to controversy, was generally accused of having missed the mark with “Towelhead,” but a scan of several critiques reveals a heavy focus on his in your face portrayal of the film’s touchy storyline rather than the actual quality of the film-making. According to Stephen Holden from The New York Times:

Even more than in “American Beauty,” suburbia is portrayed as a hellish hothouse of repression and lust, where everyone minds everyone else’s business. In this overheated atmosphere the tension suggests the opposing worlds of “Wife Swap” and “Trading Spouses” forced together in a no-win conflict. The movie is a barely disguised hate letter to southern Texas.

Holden adds that the “misanthropy” of “Towelhead” is uncontrolled.

While Ball certainly casts a deeply critical eye on American suburbia, rather than simply writing a “hate letter,” his representations of repression and lust serve to challenge the seemingly calm surface of North American suburban neighborhoods. Jasira struggles to repress her sexual desire, which is the natural result of going through puberty, because she is forced to live with a father who refuses to view her as anything more than a child. Similarly, her married army reservist neighbor becomes infatuated with her and acts out his fantasies while simultaneously trying to fight them. He even tells Jasira that he only married his wife because he accidentally impregnated her. Ball’s portrayal of the Vuosos’ superficial marriage is perhaps best embodied in the scene where Vuoso jealously watches a boy leaving Jasira’s house through his window with a framed wedding photo of him and his wife hanging behind him. The camera then turns to his wife and son sitting in the living room, his wife’s knitting suddenly speeding up furiously as he announces that he has to go out. Apart from the world of Jasira’s caring and down-to-earth neighbors, her neighborhood is always immaculately clean with perfectly mowed lawns and the inside of houses kept in perfect condition. But as evidenced by the regular appearance of real life news stories revealing sudden outbreaks of horrendous violence in Middle America, suburbia is perhaps deceptively perfect on the outside while inherently unhealthy on the inside — like the family life of Jasira and the Vuosos. Remember the Columbine Massacre? Well, there has been more than 15 similar incidents since in the US, with over 139 lives being taken so far.

Furthermore, if the “misanthropy” of “Towelhead” is indeed “uncontrolled” as Holden alleges, why does the story end with a hopeful birth scene where Jasira’s father seems to symbolically “let her go” when he encourages her to witness Melina’s child being born? Holden, like several other critics, also seems to be personally offended by Ball’s negative portrayal of men in the film, but then what do they make of Jasira’s friend Thomas, who after initially ridiculing her along with their classmates becomes a caring, patient and understand boyfriend? Even the child molester Vuoso is somewhat redeemed in the end when he indirectly tells Jasira that “it’s not your fault” and calls an ambulance for his previous nemesis Melina, who tried with sincere care and understanding to prevent Jasira from being hurt by him. That scene is perhaps the most deserving of negative critique because even though Vuoso is portrayed as afflicted by his attraction, the likelihood of him apologizing to Jasira after he was imprisoned for his acts is low.

While Roger Ebert did not echo Holden’s apparent defensiveness, the discomfort he experienced while watching the sexual scenes apparently impeded him from being able to appreciate anything else:

Towelhead” presents material that cries out to be handled with quiet empathy and hammers us with it. I understand what the film is trying to do, but not why it does it with such crude melodrama. The tone is all wrong for a story of child sexuality and had me cringing in my seat. It either has to be a tragedy or some kind of dark comedy like Kubrick’s brilliant “Lolita,” but here it is simply awkward, embarrassing and painful.

In response one might ask why the story of a biracial 13 year old being abused in various ways while she goes through puberty shouldn’t be “awkward, embarrassing and painful?” Rather than take the art for art’s sake approach, Ball deployed heavy satire and consistent irony into his film to rattle his viewers’ cages and challenge their preconceived notions of how things should be and if not that, then how they think things are. While Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita represented the sexualized and Humbert the repressed, Jasira is a much more complicated version of the sexually curious female than the objectified secondary character Lolita plays to Humbert. Lolita did not struggle with repression, only Humbert did, while in “Towelhead” both Jasira and Vuoso deal with constant lust and repression in different ways.

Towelhead
A much older man gazes upon the naked body of a 13 year old girl before having intercourse with her. Disconcerting scenes like this are the norm in “Towelhead.”

Finally, many critics argued that race was not as an important issue in “Towelhead” as the title implied, but it is in fact the most important element of Jasira’s experience. Her sexual fantasies include Caucasian women featured in porn magazines, along with her mother’s boyfriend and her neighbour, both of whom are Caucasian and culturally distanced from the Christine Lebanese aspect of her identity. In fact, the irony of Jasira being sexually interested in her father’s enemy (from the beginning Rifat and Vuoso butt heads because they are unable to see past their stereotypes of each other) is best amplified when Vuoso says: “I will think about you in Iraq,” after having raped her, an underage Arab girl. While Jasira’s female classmates (with the exception of one) make fun of her for having matured faster than them and her male classmates either ignore or make fun of her because of her race, she initially enjoys a perceived sense of empowerment from arousing deep interest in the all America married man next door. While that man’s son called her “Towelhead,” to which she ironically refutes by pointing out that her father was not a towelhead but a “Christian like everyone else in Texas,” the father was lusting after her, making her feel wanted, attractive, even despite the color of her skin. When Vuoso tells her to undress before having sex with her, he looks at her naked body (viewers only see her upper and lower body and in fact there is no direct nudity in the entire film) and tells her with a deep sigh that she is “beautiful.” Of course, by that time Jasira is already beginning to understand that the beauty he sees in her is of a hollow nature. Significantly, racist views are also not only confined to the Caucasian characters. Rifat and Vuoso both share the racist view that a girl who dates “a black boy” will be considered a “slut” by other men.

As a side note, while irony is a central component of Ball’s film, it is also apparent in his choice of casting a half Caucasian, half Indian girl as one who is supposed to be a biracial Arab in a film which focuses so heavily on the issue of race. Of course, he could certainly argue that Bishil’s talents made this logistical flaw insignificant, an argument which one could not disagree with since Bishil played her role impeccably.

While “Towelhead” does not deserve the Academy Award Ball won for “American Beauty,” it is still an important film that viewers should not shy away from because of the discomfort they will no doubt experience while watching it. If we can accept that the story the film tells is not far from certain truths (and experience tells me that many girls in similar situations could easily relate) then we can examine the resulting discomfort in a different way. The story of “Towelhead” is complex and hard to watch, but then again, isn’t that also true of real life?

Related:
American Beauty
DVD: American Beauty

About these ads

Your Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s