Don’t you just love your neighbors.
Jasira (Summer Bishil) is a 13-year-old Arab-American girl navigating through the confusing and frightening path of adolescence and her own sexual awakening. When Jasira’s mother sends her to Houston to live with her strict Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi), she quickly learns that her new neighbors find her and her father a curiosity, something that has some positive, as well as dangerously negative effects on them, and everyone around them.
It’s hard to watch Towelhead and not at all try and compare it to writer/director Alan Ball’s other work. For one, American Beauty and Six Feet Under are absolute masterpieces, showing off Ball’s great sense of heart, humor, satire, and thoughtfulness beyond it all. In a way, True Blood took him away from what we all know and love, which is why it’s so good to see something like Towelhead, as mixed as it may be, still at least hit the same notes we expect from Ball.
But at the same time time, when you’re up against American Beauty and Six Feet Under, it’s a really hard battle to win, which ultimately becomes Towelhead‘s one factor holding it all back.
Ball isn’t really diving into a subject he hasn’t tried before (suburbia), but at least he still makes it feel fresh and inventive just by how hard he pushes this story. A lot of the subject material, as you would suspect, is very controversial, but Ball isn’t afraid to dig in deep. Jasira’s story starts off bad and then gets worse and worse and worse, and it only has some bright spots here and there, but not enough to fully make us feel as if we can put a smile on our faces when it’s over. It’s a ride of torment that Ball involves us in, and if you can handle it and watch, then you may actually come away liking this flick.
Now, if menstrual blood, tampons, underage sex, masturbation, bloody tampons, and dead kittens aren’t your cup of tea, then yeah, Towelhead may grossly disturb you. But then again, it’s sort of the point; Ball is showing that growing up, going through puberty, and eventually, having a sexual awakening, isn’t a very pretty thing. It’s sometimes scary, random, and yes, a little disgusting. But it’s a fact and way of life and it’s kind of great how Ball doesn’t approach any of this in a back-offish way, but instead, showing it all in its gritty glory.
Something he’s done before, of course, but man, he does push some buttons here.
Problem is, something feels missing. Normally, this wouldn’t always bother me, had I not been familiar with the director’s work prior, but with Ball, I love and appreciate his work so much, it’s hard for me not to watch Towelhead and wonder what was here and what was missing. Ball seems to be reaching a bit here, in that there’s a lot he wants to say about racism, about sex, about gender, about puberty, about religion, about family, and about so much other stuff, that he could do to the absolute fulfillment in the whole five seasons of Six Feet Under, but in Towelhead, he has to find a way to cram it all in under two-hours somehow, and it can’t help but seem a little messy. It’s as if Ball himself knew he had a lot to work with, gave it the Freshman try, saw what stuck, what didn’t, and just leave it all there, in one, messy, and rather unfocused piece.
But then again, I’d much rather have a messy, unfocused piece from Alan Ball, than from a lot of other people out there, so it does help.
Really though, where Towelhead does seem to lose a bit of intelligence is in the way Ball himself writes everyone who isn’t Jasira. Either they’re all sickening, mean, or absolutely rude, and it makes you wonder: Is it the point? One adult character in particular is Maria Bello as Jasira’s mother. Bello is great, as usual, but her character is just so selfish, so mean, and so callous the whole time she’s on the screen, that it made me wonder just how the hell anybody would want to stay at her place over a long Summer. Also, Jasira’s dad and her mother seem like total opposites that would never, ever come together in real life, let alone be married for six years and have a kid.
On the flip-side of the equation, there’s Aaron Eckhart as the terrifyingly creepy next-door neighbor that takes a liking to Jasira right from the start. We already know that Eckhart can play sleazy very well, but this is a different kind of sleazy right here. This guy is dirty, uncomfortable to be around, inappropriate, nasty, cruel, and any other bad word that I can come up with now, but would just so repetitive. Eckhart takes control of the screen every time he’s in front of it and the scenes he has with Jasira, just make this film even more tense and bizarre than it already was in the first place. There’s only about two or three scenes where his character feels fleshed out, but Eckhart never forgets to remind us that this guy is a predator, and predator’s are always lurking around every corner.
So yeah, some of the characterization works and some of it doesn’t.
As Jasira, Summer Bishil is pretty great, in that she doesn’t feel like the typical teen you’d get in a movie such as this. She’s smarter, a little bit wiser, and yes, even aware of her surroundings. Still, at the same time, she is a bit naive and silly about the world around her and it’s interesting to see her learn, adapt and grow over the course of the movie, even when it seems like the movie’s pushing her arch so ridiculously far, it’s a wonder how she stays believable and understated through it all. But she does, so good for her.
Consensus: Towelhead is another one of Alan Ball’s take-downs of middle-class suburbia, with some biting, lovely writing, but also an unfocused direction that leaves a lot of loose strands by the end.
7.5 / 10
Oh, and definitely like neighbor.
Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz