Towelhead

Alan Ball goes one for two in his feature helming debut, hitting a double with his provocative script but fouling out with his directing.

With:
Jasira - Summer Bishil Mr. Vuoso - Aaron Eckhart Rifat - Peter Macdissi Melina - Toni Collette Gail - Maria Bello Thomas Bradley - Eugene Jones Gil - Matt Letscher Zack - Chase Ellison Denise - Gemmenne de la Pena Thena - Lynn Collins

Alan Ball goes one for two in his feature helming debut, hitting a double with his provocative script but fouling out with his directing in “Towelhead.” Maintaining consistent tone and performances in such a stylized “period piece” (a teenage girl’s period is just one of many touchy subjects broached here) is of the utmost importance, and the “Six Feet Under” auteur doesn’t have the control to keep it from veering all over the place, to queasy and debilitating effect. Ball’s rep and pic’s topical nature provide sufficient talking points to assure a certain profile in specialized release, but critical reaction will be very divided, and Warner Independent and Red Envelope, which picked up the film at Toronto, will have to get behind it 200% to give it a real theatrical shot.

Script is adapted from Alicia Erian’s novel “Towelhead,” about a 13-year-old girl bounced between her American mother and Lebanese father — neither a paragon of civility, emotional stability or common sense — and drenched in a toxic environment that encourages precocious sexual activity.

On top of that, characters’ attitudes are shot through with racial and cultural prejudices and assumptions that fly in every possible direction, all against the backdrop of the first Gulf War. Stacking the deck with so many loaded issues demands great finesse in knowing how to play the cards, and this is where the writer is revealed not to be the best custodian of his own material.

Pic doesn’t do itself any favors in the first few minutes, as it throws a collection of gross and rude behavior in the audience’s face before the characters are properly introduced: Pubescent Jasira (Summer Bishil) compliantly has her pubic hair shaved by the uncouth b.f. of her ill-tempered mother Gail (Maria Bello); when she’s shipped off to Houston to live with her father Rifat (Peter Macdissi), Jasira gets a chilly reception and is slapped for wearing a too-revealing outfit.

The provocations continue apace. Rifat, a baffling combination of disciplinarian and libertine, is a U.S. citizen and a Christian, works for NASA, lives in a bland suburban tract house and, to the confusion of neighbors who think of him simply as an Arab, is violently anti-Saddam and in favor of the U.S. taking him out. When he allows his daughter to babysit the obnoxious 11-year-old boy next door, little does he imagine the kid will turn her on to sex magazines, or that the brat’s dad, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), an Army reservist waiting to be called up, will bloody his fingers, as shown in extreme closeup, by violating the little girl.

With all of the above and much to come, the film intends to startle with its upfront taboo-breaking, its depiction of the sexual explorations of barely double-digit-aged characters, and of adult complicity in them. This alone will turn many viewers off. But it also means to make you laugh at the characters’ infinite foibles, as indicated by the arch tone, brittle line readings, outre situations and absurd juxtapositions.

The comic pitch and poisonous suburban family dynamics are reminiscent of the Ball-scripted “American Beauty,” but there director Sam Mendes hit the desired tone, both visually and performance-wise. There are laughs in “Towelhead,” but far more of it is just weird to the point of being questionable; many scenes are too preposterous to be realistic, but if they don’t come off as funny, they just seem silly, if not noxious.

As the running time pushes toward two hours and beyond, the lack of any real plot becomes an increasing drag on the enterprise. Biggest ongoing conflict is Jasira’s relationship with horny black schoolmate Tommy (Eugene Jones).

The point in the end is that with Tommy and Mr. Vuoso, as well as with her parents, Jasira is so young that she goes along with the abuse, and doesn’t even really know that’s what it is, until her gradual awakening to the gravity of her mistreatment. In time-honored fashion, there needs to be a scapegoat for what’s occurred, but in the film’s view, all are guilty to a degree, as is society at large, for its banality and intense degree of sexualization.

But the picture itself is also culpable on the last two counts. Visually, it’s hard to see what Ball and lenser Newton Thomas Sigel are going for. Settings are bland, and the filmmakers douse them with a sort of orange-brown highlighting that is exceptionally unattractive.

Even more crucial are the performances. Centerstage most of the time, the petite Bishil is capable and not disagreeable to watch, but one never truly knows what she’s thinking, and she seems more like a vessel for other people’s preoccupations and hang-ups than a fully formed character in her own right. Eckhart is regular-guy-creepy, Bello is a fright, Jones so straightforward that no sensitivities or doubts show up, and Toni Collette, playing a sympathetic neighbor who takes Jasira in for a while, emerges as the most “normal” of the bunch.

The key player, however, is Macdissi. Responsive to the film’s comic intentions in a way the others are not, mustachioed thesp at times recalls Peter Sellers in his deliberately absurd crispness and assuredness, and he gets most of the film’s best laughs. But he also occasionally suffers from being on a comic limb when the others are not out there with him; Ball just leaves him hanging, or doesn’t know how to get the others in synch with Macdissi’s superior instincts.

So “Towelhead” is transgressive without being effectively subversive, gutsy to no particular end. It simply lacks style, which counts for so much in this sort of thing.

Towelhead

Production: A Warner Independent Pictures/Red Envelope release of a This Is That/Indian Paintbrush production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Ted Hope, Steven Rales, Alan Ball. Executive producers, Anne Carey, Scott Rudin, Peggy Rajski. Directed, written by Alan Ball, based on the novel "Towelhead" by Alicia Erian.

Crew: Camera (color, Panavision, HD), Newton Thomas Sigel; editor, Andy Keir; music, Thomas Newman; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, James Chinlund; art director, Alex Wei; set decorator, Fainche MacCarthy; costume designer, Danny Glicker; sound (Dolby Digital), Mark Weingarten; supervising sound editor, Marlena Grzaslewicz; assistant director, Noga Isackson; casting, Wendy Goldstein. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2007. Running time: 128 MIN.

With: Jasira - Summer Bishil Mr. Vuoso - Aaron Eckhart Rifat - Peter Macdissi Melina - Toni Collette Gail - Maria Bello Thomas Bradley - Eugene Jones Gil - Matt Letscher Zack - Chase Ellison Denise - Gemmenne de la Pena Thena - Lynn Collins

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