American Doody: Towelhead

by robbiefreeling
September 10, 2008 12:31 PM
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Not far into his feature directorial debut, Towelhead, Alan Ball offers us the sight of a thirteen-year-old girl having her first period in a bathroom stall; this is shot from a low angle, with the camera positioned near the floor, peering up through the girl's blood-stained panties as she stares down in perturbation. To acknowledge the sheer inappropriateness of Ball's framing is not to take a moral stance (Summer Bishil, who plays the character, was close to twenty when she acted in the film), but rather to call into question the neophyte filmmaker and longtime overpraised screenwriter's level of taste, imagination, and sophistication.

As with American Beauty, that culturally regressive lump of tackiness disguised as a sober-minded state-of-contemporary-society treatise that won Ball a screenplay Oscar, Towelhead (which debuted at Toronto under the title "Nothing Is Private") means to provoke, to hold up a mirror to a suburban America riddled with sexual deviance and puritanical hypocrisy. Rather, all it manages to reflect is Ball himself -- his obsessions and hang-ups haphazardly mashed up into a lopsided narrative that, though based on a novel by Alicia Erian, plays like a litany of his movie fetishes.

The film opens with another of Ball's showily "intimate" moments: sexually emergent Lebanese-American teen Jasira is first seen shaving her pubic hair in front of her mother's lascivious and molesting boyfriend (Chris Messina). Soon enough, monster mom Gail (the usually reliable Maria Bello, here shockingly shrill) is blaming Jasira for what she perceives as unchecked flirtatiousness ("This whole thing is your fault," she upbraids her) and shipping her off to live with her father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), in a suburb of Houston. The prefab community, shot with that wholly expected visual condescension that has become poor movie shorthand for viable social commentary (rarely is there an American flag captured on camera without some sort of pointedly canted or extreme angle), is much like Rifat, fastidious and quietly malevolent. Most alarming is the widely grinning, seemingly good-natured next-door neighbor and army reservist Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) -- of course, this being an Alan Ball film, Vuoso's corn-fed jocularity conceals an aggressive pedophilia.

As with American Beauty, Towelhead, set without clear reason during the first Gulf War, is unedifyingly perched on the edge of satire; why this material requires such a strategy is beyond me, and judging by the film's schizoid approach to character and tone, seemingly beyond Alan Ball as well. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky's review of Towelhead.

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