It's entirely possible one 13-year-old girl might have to cope simultaneously with 1) a neglectful and selfish mother, 2) mom's sexually predatory boyfriend, 3) a father who slaps, strikes and spits on her and plays mind games, 4) racist classmates who taunt her, 5) teachers who humiliate her, 6) a neighbor who rapes her and 7) an older boy who talks her into consensual sex.
But when her father callously drove over a little white kitten, symbol of purity and innocence, I'd had enough.
There are two fine moral lessons in “Towelhead.” One concerns the self-image of attractive young girls, whom our culture objectifies crudely: Even dad's shallow, bosomy girlfriend encourages the title character to become a model instead of an engineer.
The other is about race-based judgments. Most people in Texas see young Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil) as a foreigner whose name they can't pronounce, though they substitute “Towelhead” or “Camel Jockey” in its place. They assume her father, a Christian from Lebanon, would like Saddam Hussein to slay President Bush – the film is set in the early '90s – though Mr. Maroun is more conservative than the Army reservist next door (Aaron Eckhart, always convincing as a charming sleaze).
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Writer-director Alan Ball tackles important issues, but so heavy-handedly that the film seems absurd. Take the letter Jasira's grandmother writes in French. Her father (inert Peter Macdissi) refuses to translate it, so she asks for help from her French teacher – who hands it to another student to read aloud to the mocking class. As studio head Jack Warner said of movies in the days of the telegraph, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
The film is most compelling when it sticks with Jasira's budding sexuality. She's trying to decide how to behave around boys and men, and Bishil gives an interestingly passive performance: She comes on tentatively to men, backs off when they're interested, and is at sea about her deeper feelings. (Bishil was 18 when the film was shot but looks much younger.)
Some people have complained the film is semi-pornographic, because it titillates us while wagging a finger at those who might be turned on. But I felt more like I was trapped with a well-meaning high school principal lecturing an auditorium full of kids about responsible behavior.