Today I saw a chilling film I have been anticipating, Alan Ball's Towelhead, the story of a teenage girl's sexual victimization through the paradigm of a Middle Eastern living in the suburban landscape of Texas during the Gulf War. The film is adapted from Alicia Erian's novel of the same name. Thirteen year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) moves in with her Lebanese-American father (Peter Macdissi) after an incident with her mother's boyfriend. In her new life in Texas, Jasira's days are plagued with her father's indifference and constant judgment, racist epithets from her classmates, and inappropriate attention from her redneck neighbor Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). In her confused search for affection and normalcy, Jasira befriends a concerned neighbor, the pregnant Melina (Toni Collette), and gets involved with an African-American classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones III).
I grimaced and squirmed uncomfortably throughout the film, feeling the whole time as if anything bad that could happen, would, and worrying that there may be no redemption at the end. On a scale of how much dread I felt in the pit of my stomach, I would place Towelhead higher than Babel, but lower than Dancer in the Dark. For all the horrible things that happened to our female protagonist, I might have thought I was in fact watching a Lars von Trier film, but this film carried Ball's wry perspective on suburbia's seamy underbelly, and was reminiscent of Todd Solondz's Storytelling. More on that later.
The film gives us a look into the psyche of the neglected and sexualized Jasira, as well as the mind of her rapist Mr. Vuoso. In this, and its outsider's satire of middle America, the film aspires to Nabokov's Lolita, and of course Kubrick's iconic adaptation. While more menacing and less comedic than Lolita, Towelhead portrays Jasira as a nymphet exactly as Nabokov describes them. It makes the uncomfortable suggestion that the young girl a) possesses a powerful sexuality, b) knows how to use it, and c) is totally compliant with the urges of her "lover." When Nabokov's Humbert Humbert describes the nymphet, it reads like an insatiable man's description of the perfect meal. When Mr. Vuoso looks at Jasira, and when she looks at him, the same feeling is conveyed.
Bishil's performace is convincing, and would be heartbreaking enough if Jasira were only dealing with humiliation at school, the onset of her first period, and parents that just don't understand, but with the constant onslaught of abuse on a racial and sexual basis, it's that much more affective. Some things which she goes through aren't uncommon experiences for girls her age, though perhaps not frequently portrayed in the media. She discovers masturbation on accident while perusing pornographic magazines found by chance, and she endeavors to understand the new sexual feelings. She wants to wear makeup and shave her legs, but everyone else seems more aware of her particularly advanced body than she does, including her parents. These things could be aspects of a typical coming of age story, but in Jasira's life they are perverted by the ways that grownups treat her.
Jasira's parents, white American Gail (Maria Bello) and Lebanese-American Rifat, have been divorced for seven years, but are equally selfish and controlling. As happens so often in abusive situations, Gail blames her daughter when she is touched inappropriately by Gail's boyfriend, and later seeks closeness with Jasira simply to cure her loneliness. Rifat would rather spend time with his girlfriend Theno than offer Jasira a kind word, and hits her whenever she's done something he deems immoral. Both parents blame Jasira for everything bad that happens, and expect only blind obedience to their dicta, with no exceptions.
Throughout the film, the neighbor Melina is Jasira's only ally, but all she can do is offer support and the promise of a safe haven to Jasira until she is sure that there is an actual threat. As the only character with her head screwed on straight, I was convinced that something horrible was going to happen to her at any moment. Once again Toni Collette shines, as she is always able to bring depth to a simple character (see her role as Kitty in The Hours). Of course, Jasira often views Melina as intrusive, as she doesn't know if anyone should interfere with her relationship with Mr. Vuoso.
Jasira's relationship with Thomas is the most complicated one she has. Jasira is multiracial and her father dates a Greek woman throughout the film, but he forbids her from seeing a black boy. Thomas seems as though he must be older than Jasira, though it is unclear if what he knows about sex is anecdotal or a posteriori. He clearly cares for her, but at the same time his lust is his primary motivation, and he is unsettlingly possessive of her. At the end of the film, after the secret has come out about Mr. Vuoso's actions, Thomas acts as though he's been gypped of Jasira's virginal attachment to him. Jasira clearly enjoys sex with Thomas, and doesn't want to be denied a continued sexual relationship with him just because he's made uncomfortable by her experiences with Mr. Vuoso. It's a confusing situation because we know Jasira shouldn't be having sex at 13, but we don't want Thomas to control Jasira's sex life.
There is nothing wrong with a teenager coming to terms with her new feelings about her own body, and modern feminists champion an adult woman's confident control over her own sex life. However, seeing Jasira aspire to become a nude model after she's been prematurely sexualized against her will is difficult to watch. Particularly when Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Mr. Vuoso is so animalistic and ravenous. There is a scene when Jasira is staying with Melina and her husband Gil that strikes quickly and is incredibly unsettling. There is a sequence of quick cuts between Gil's line of sight, Jasira's thigh as her skirt rides up, and an ambiguous look on his face. I must have groaned from discomfort at the skillful editing, until it is revealed that Gil's gaze is not sexual at all.
This particular feeling of discomfort is what reminded me of Storytelling. In the "Non-Fiction" segment of the film there is a pervasive theme of racism and classism portrayed between a young boy and his Hispanic housekeeper that was painful for me to watch. It struck me as particularly memorable because I was concurrently aware of how the relationship made me feel, as well as the fact that the filmmaker wanted to elicit strong vehement reactions. It was as though, as a student of film, I felt I should disregard my emotional reaction because I know that the film is actively trying to draw it out, but I was unable to. Compared to, say, the extreme reveal in Oldboy, which didn't bother me as much as the film wanted it to, because the film was less realistic. Apply this to the pedophilia in Towelhead, and this is what I struggled with during my viewing.
In the end, things are left mostly ambiguous. Jasira and her father seem to have reconciled, though there is no dialogue or action dedicated to an actual redemption on Rifat's part. Gail's reaction to the news about Jasira is left out, as well as a conclusion to the question of which parent Jasira would end up living with. Assumedly nothing is different in Jasira's school life, and she will continue a sexual relationship with the lascivious Thomas. Melina is apparently unscathed after a potentially critical accident, and has her baby. And all the while, Mr. Vuoso is out on bail and living at home with his family on the same cul de sac as Jasira. The tone seems uplifting when the credits roll, but I can't help but feel there is more pain in pipeline for Jasira.
I felt this film deserved a deeper exploration than I usually provide, because it brought up so many complicated responses and was very thought-provoking. It was certainly very well-made, though in the end not as important as some of its inspirations which have come before. It brought a new twist to the tropes in Lolita, American Beauty, and some aspects of Six Feet Under, but broke no new ground. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth a watch, thanks to the wonderful performances and the fact that it will certainly spark a discussion.