The Movie Review: 'Towelhead'

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Perhaps the weakest scene in American Beauty is the one in which the brutal, homophobic Marine colonel played by Chris Cooper is revealed to be, in fact, a closeted gay man. It's a trite, sophomoric reversal, and one that briefly brings the ideological shallowness of the film into sharp focus. The scene comes late in the movie, however, and it is preceded by so many substantial pleasures--Sam Mendes's crisp, elegant direction, Kevin Spacey's sublimely seamless performance--that it's easy to forgive.

Though Alan Ball won an Oscar for his American Beauty screenplay, it's taken nine years for him to return to the big screen with Towelhead, which he also directed. (He was detained in the interim by his HBO show "Six Feet Under," which I did not watch but have been persuasively assured I ought to have.) And while the film is full of echoes to American Beauty, they're less harmonious this time out. Towelhead contains a scene, for instance, thematically identical to the earlier movie's homophobe reversal, but it takes place much earlier and casts an unflattering political shadow over what follows. An Army reservist played by Aaron Eckhart, who has taught his young son such terms of art as "towelhead," "camel jockey," and "sand nigger," goes next door to rebuke said son's half-Arab babysitter. Instead, overcome by an irresistible passion, he sexually assaults her. In Ball's cinematic universe, it seems, bigots are not even allowed to be authentic haters. Rather, they're hypocrites as well, secretly craving the objects of their rehearsed contempt.

Nor do Towelhead's similarities to American Beauty end with its portrayal of a malignant, conflicted military man. This movie, too, has opinions to offer on the suburbs (bad), teen sex (good), and grown men lusting after ungrown girls (bad, but understandable). In American Beauty such dubious lessons were largely submerged beneath textured characterization and cinematic technique; in Towelhead, by contrast, they bob eagerly on the surface, impossible to ignore.

Adapted from the novel by Alicia Erian, Ball's film tells the story of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a 13-year-old, half-Lebanese girl who, for obscure reasons, provokes uncontrollable lust in nearly every man she meets. The first of these is the live-in boyfriend of her shiftless mother (Maria Bello), a classy fellow who, in the opening scene of the movie, tells Jasira she is beautiful and offers to give her a bikini shave. Mom, nonplussed, responds by blaming the victim--"Listen to me: This is all your fault," she explains--and shipping her off to the Houston suburbs to live with her strict, Lebanese-American dad (Peter Macdissi). There, she endures parental abuse, ethnic slurs at school, and the obscene attentions of the reservist next door (Eckhart). Her consolations are almost entirely carnal: reading the porn magazines with which Eckhart supplies her and the learn-about-your-body's-changes book offered by a more kindly neighbor (Toni Collette); exploring her aptitude for hands-free orgasms; and sleeping with an African-American classmate (Eugene Jones).

The movie does have its rewards. Bishil is a true find--magnetic, nuanced, able to convey a welter of conflicting adolescent emotions serially and all at once--but in stark contrast to American Beauty's Lester Burnham, her Jasira never develops much beyond the sexually curious innocent we meet at the beginning. Macdissi, best known for his work on "Six Feet Under," is terrific as well, wittily uptight one moment (his exasperated "Now what" every time the doorbell rings is priceless), shockingly violent the next. Eckhart does the best he can as the conservative Christian who's a closet pervert, though this is a Two-Face more cartoonish than the one he played in The Dark Knight. And there are moments of genuine drama, humor, and insight scattered throughout.

But there's an off-putting moral smugness to the whole endeavor, an undercurrent of superiority to the rubes on display. For all his faults, Jasira's dad speaks lovely français, for instance, in sharp contrast to the hick French teacher at school, whose accent is straight out of Paris, Texas. Even the movie's evident enthusiasm for a 13-year-old girl's cross-racial sexual relationship seems largely a result of the moral calculus that, if bigots hate it, it must be good. Late in the film, there's a moment when this ethical lens shifts momentarily, when Jasira's repressive, bullying dad is proven right about something and the tolerant, liberal neighbor played by Collette is proven wrong. But this revelation lasts mere seconds before it is washed away by a larger revelation, one that restores the movie's easy ideological bromides. For a film that presents itself as a broadside against prejudice, Towelhead spends an awful lot of time flattering the prejudices of its audience.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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