It's possible that Alan Ball
will never quite grow up. And after seeing his directorial debut Towelhead, people may never want him to -- those that stay until the final credits roll, at least.
The advance word percolating out of festivals was that Ball's adaptation of Alicia Erian's novel of sexual and racial angst in the suburbs during the Gulf War was just shy of a disaster. Shocking, in-your-face, inappropriate, the rumors said, and not in a good way. An indie film community, that just a few years ago would have embraced this film as a brave slap in conformity's face, was now seeming to turn its collective back. Some of the advance negativity was well-informed, at least about Ball. This is a wildly manipulative and immature film, a sort of adolescent fever dream looking to tick off as many taboos as possible. But amidst the campy twists and unbelievable outbursts there can also be felt an indefinable honesty; something in far shorter supply these days than mere outrage.
When it comes to outrage, Ball doesn't skimp, starting with his 13-year-old protagonist Jasira (affectingly blank newcomer Summer Bishil) allowing her separated mother's boyfriend to shave her. A predictably one-sided eruption follows not long after, with Jasira's soured little despot of a mother (Maria Bello
, whose vinegary appeal does nothing but grow) bundling her off to her father, but not before assuring a weeping Jasira that "this is all your fault." Article continues below
With those kind words, a confused Jarsia shows up in the suburbs of Houston. There she comes under the thumb of her persnickety Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdisi
) -- a persnickety and terrier-like NASA engineer whose mustache bristles at the slightest hint of disruption to his order -- and the leering eye of the next-door neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart
). It isn't long before Vuoso is taking advantage of Jasira's budding interest in sex, showing her his porn magazines and getting abusively familiar. Although its title comes from one of the many racial epithets that Vuoso's boy sends Jarsira's way, this is less a film about an outsider and discrimination and more about the ticking time bomb that is Jasira's adolescence. The America in this film is one that barrages young women with harshly charged sexuality and then punishes them for responding.
Given the heavy-handed symbolism of the setting (Saddam Hussein is on everybody's minds, and the loyalty of Arab-Americans is far from assumed), and its forthright presentation of dysfunctional sexuality, Towelhead could well have been another suburbia-is-hell exercise in quease. But in Ball's hands, the film becomes an improbably moving melodrama that repeatedly veers in unexpected, and welcome, directions. Ball's film is adolescent in its outlook and concerns, but wholeheartedly so. (It's sobering to think what might have happened had Todd Solondz or Larry Clark gotten their sweaty little mitts on it.)
Ball is nobody's great director, placing the camera too tentatively and using it without a spark of dynamism. The film's threadbare budget certainly shows, but not in ways that matter. In a sense, though, it's a more affecting take than Sam Mendes' shooting of Ball's similarly juvenile American Beauty, which slathered gleam and gloss over the script's emotional darkness; it may have been meant as irony but in effect it simply made the pill go down easier. In American Beauty one could find refuge in Kevin Spacey
's comforting regression. But there's no real equivalent in Towelhead, where the Texas sun is merciless, the houses are mean little ranches, privacy is a meaningless word, and American flags snap overhead in the wind like sentinels. War and sex are thrumming in the air, and there are simply no hiding places for the weak or undefended.