C

Towelhead

C

Towelhead

Director: Alan Ball
Runtime: 116 minutes
Cast: Lynn Collins

Perhaps the best way to explain what's so wrong about Towelhead is first to consider what's right about it, and that begins and ends with Summer Bishil, excellent as a 13-year-old who experiences a rude sexual awakening. The mixed-race daughter of two raging narcissists—her mother neglectful and irresponsible, her father inordinately strict and oppressive—she gets mixed messages from home and little but contempt from her classmates, who don't like the color of her skin. So when her sexual curiosity naturally begins to pique, as it will with any girl that age, Bishil doesn't have a clue where to go with it, which leads her to seek pleasure where she can get it, and love in wildly inappropriate places. Consider this plot thread in isolation, and Ball had the makings of something like Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, which captured this particular rite of passage with raw terror.

Instead, Ball piles on the provocations: Working from Alicia Erian's novel, he takes Bishil's coming of age as an opportunity to overload the movie with important themes and issues, including racism and interracial relationships, suburban hypocrisy, Gulf War I (with clear allusions to Gulf War II), pedophilia, and white-wine liberalism. And that's just for starters. Towelhead is like a great melting pot of writerly self-importance. After a disturbing prologue that has her mother's boyfriend offering to shave her excess pubic hair, the film brings Bishil to suburban Houston, where she's forced to live with her Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi), a moralistic tyrant who nonetheless flaunts his swinging bachelor lifestyle. Macdissi imposes so much modesty on his daughter that he won't even let her use tampons, and she revolts by surreptitiously dating a black schoolmate and encouraging the advances of the married Army reservist (Aaron Eckhart) next door.

As if to cover all of his sociopolitical bases, Ball throws in a hippified neighbor (Toni Collette) who tries to project and educate Bishil, but may be too permissive. Needless to say, all these combustible elements eventually converge in the final act, each representative of one type or another used to illustrate one point or another. Much as with Crash—and Ball's script for the overrated American Beauty, another Oscar-winner—the themes come first and the characters are manufactured in service of them, not the other way around. From its title on down, Towelhead alarms and manipulates, and succeeds in goading the audience like a schoolyard bully, but apart from Bishil's harrowing attempts to find herself, the strings stay too visible.