Towelhead

Two reasons you immediately know a film is controversial…

1) It finally hits your screens after two years.
2) When you go to the IMDb, you see the softer title.

I remember the Towelhead controversy because the mother is played by Maria Bello and post-Cronenberg I watched her career more closely (something I stopped doing after The Mummy 3 – anyway…). The film debuted in September 2007 at a Canadian film festival. There were plans to also show it in the US, but the title was allegedly way too offensive. After it was shown at the Sundance Festival in January 2008, it was also shown at a couple of other festivals in the US, but the film had to wait for a general release until the month of September. By then, the title had been changed to Nothing Is Private. Having seen the film, you can understand what that title wants to say and how it’s an appropriate title for the film, but the original title – one offensive word – managed to depict the film more accurately.
The DVD has already been released in the US, but the last week of July 2009 also brought the film to Belgium, the 14th country to release the film theatrically. That should be a clear indication that it’s not just the film’s title that might cause offence.

Summer Bishil plays Jasira, the 13-year-old girl of a Lebanese man (Peter Macdissi) and an American woman (Bello). The couple has split and Jasira resides with her mother and new boyfriend, trailer trash Barry. After Jasira is upset because some kids called her Chewbacca at a pool, Barry volunteers to shave Jasira’s pubic hair. This causes her mother to freak out and Jasira is sent to her father for a stricter upbringing. Her father, Rifat Maroun, is indeed quite strict… in fact, he’s one of the most antipathic fathers to come to a screen in a long time.

Jasira doesn’t like her new surroundings and vice versa. At school she goes by a lot of names, none of them somewhat positive (there’s one reference, Jizz-ira, that went unnoticed by the local subtitlers). Her father forces her to look after the younger boy next door. Their neighbour, Mr Vuoso, is a reservist and it’s a role played by Aaron Eckhart of In The Company of Men fame. His character here is equally lovable. Jasira accidently finds Vuoso’s porn collection and this makes him think she’s sexually interested in him. Meanwhile, a schoolmate is also interested in Jasira, much to her father’s dismay (as the boy is black).

Credit given where credit’s due: from the first scene (set to INXS’s “New Sensation”), the music department did a good job of finding an appropriate soundtrack for the early 90s (the film takes place just before and during the war in Kuwait and Iraq).
Towelhead
is a movie that can make you laugh as well as feel uneasy (to the point of nausea). Jasira’s standard phrase (“I’m sorry”) is an indication of the massive guilt complex this young girl suffers from. Alicia Erian‘s  novel was translated to the screen by Alan Ball without losing focus on the young protagonist but some distance between the character and the viewer is kept. Because of the adult themes in this films, Jasira (13) had to be played by a girl considerably older (18 or 19) and sometimes this is a bit evident. For instance in the stripping scene. There’s another thing that bugged me there: the director chose to show as much as possible without going for actual nudity or signs of arousal, hence the carefully placed furniture. While it’s true we didn’t need a nude shot of the girl or to see Vuoso’s erect penis in his pants, the furniture makes the scene look more ridiculous.

So here we have a very explicit movie that occasionally doesn’t dare to go all the way. Which isn’t necessarily bad: one step further and this would’ve been the next Larry Clark movie. But it shouldn’t have to be so evident for the viewer. Nevertheless, this is a tough cookie to review (much like Eden Lake earlier this year). For now I’ll stick to 7.5/10. I may change that later in the year.

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