Even at the tender young age of 13, the strikingly beautiful Jasira seems destined to go through life igniting the passions of the men and boys around her. A product of a mixed marriage (her mother is white, her father Lebanese) and a broken home, she lives with her strict, traditionalist dad in a Texas suburb during the time of the first Gulf War. Though shy by nature, Jasira seems wise beyond her years when it comes to exploring her burgeoning sexuality. Like many girls her age, she dreams of one day becoming a famous model like the ones she sees in fashion magazines or on billboards around town. Yet, despite the sternness and rigidity of her father, Jasira winds up getting involved with both a black boy at school and the middle-aged family man who lives two doors down.
With "Towelhead," writer/director Alan Ball returns to the theme of simmering suburban eroticism that he explored so effectively in "American Beauty" and "Six Feet Under." Indeed, it`s safe to say that "Towelhead" is possibly the most perceptive, frank and intelligent exploration of teenage sexuality I've ever seen on film. Somehow Ball has managed to take a subject that could easily have become exploitative and sensationalistic and turned into a moving and compassionate tale of flawed individuals who, despite the fact that they may mean well, often act in ways that cause serious harm to others. As is true of every teen, Jasira is naturally curious about her body and intrigued by that secret, forbidden world of pleasure to which only grownups seem somehow privy. The trouble is that Jasira is surrounded by adults who provide her with either weak or contradictory guidance, or who can't control their own urges long enough to think about the harm they might be inflicting on others with their actions. On a broader scale, Ball questions how modern teens can be expected to make wise decisions about sex when they are routinely bombarded with mixed messages from a culture that is both highly sexualized and highly puritanical at one and the same time. Often times, we get the sense that Jasira is using her new found sexuality - without yet fully understanding the powerful effect it is having on the males around her - to fill an emotional void in her life, a void caused by a mother and a father who are so caught up in their own lives that they have little left over for their daughter. To a somewhat lesser extent, the movie also touches on the racism that exists in not only the white culture but the nonwhite culture as well. For while Jasira is being taunted by the kids at school for her dark skin (even though many assume she is Mexican), her own father is forbidding her to date a black boy who has taken a romantic interest in her.
Ball has populated his story (based on the novel by Alicia Erian) with a rich array of complex, multi-dimensional characters, each one a unique and closely observed individual. Beyond the intriguing Jasira, there is her hot-tempered father who, in his own, perhaps clumsy, way clearly loves his daughter but who is so bound in by the traditions of his culture that he can't even begin to understand what is going on in her heart. There is the kind, pragmatic next door neighbor who keeps her eye on the girl and extends the hand of friendship when it is needed most. And, finally, there is the older man caught between what he knows is right and his compelling need to seduce a child young enough to be his own daughter. Ball makes it clear that none of these characters is a hero or a villain, that life is simply too messy and complex a business for us to be assigning such roles to individuals. Yet, he clearly acknowledges that there is such a thing as going over the line, and that adults need to understand that their own desires should never be fulfilled at the expense of others more vulnerable than themselves.
Summer Bishil is heartbreaking and utterly believable as young Jashira, while Peter Macdissi infuses both a sense of menace and a strangely offbeat humor into the role of her hardnosed, dogmatic father. Toni Collete is her usual first rate self as the older woman who takes Jasira under her wing, offering her the kind of guidance her actual parents seem either unwilling or unable to provide for her. As the neighbor who seduces Jasira, Aaron Eckhart brings a great deal of courage, subtlety and restraint to one of the trickiest roles imaginable for an actor. Eckhart is obviously secure in the conviction that the audience will be mature enough to see the humanity in his character even while feeling disgust at his actions.
In fact, that's pretty much the way it is with the entire film. There are some who will be instantly turned off by the highly sensitive nature of the subject matter. But, true artist that he is, Ball has been able to transcend the sleaze to provide us with a heartbreaking human drama that, by touching on the universal, is able to strike a chord of familiarity in the audience.
Put simply, "Towelhead" is one of the very best films of 2008.