- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

“Towelhead,” adapted from Alicia Erian’s novel of the same name by Alan Ball, is not a light late-summer, early-fall feature. “This story has real hot-button emotional issues, and there will be people who will not be able to see beyond that,” Mr. Ball says.

One of those issues is the movie’s name. After premiering at festivals as “Nothing Is Private,” the title reverted back for wide release. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has criticized the film - an odd move because one of the film’s primary themes is a frank condemnation of knee-jerk racism.

The name, however, is nothing compared to the thematic elements; the professional critical term for movies like Mr. Ball’s directorial debut is “icky.”

“Towelhead” revolves around the sexual maturation of a Lebanese-American 14-year-old, Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil) and what that means in contemporary American society. It is exceptionally uncomfortable at times, particularly when Jasira interacts with her next-door neighbor, an Army reservist by the name of Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart).

Those familiar with Mr. Ball’s previous work, most notably his Oscar-winning writing on “American Beauty,” will find some similar themes here: a distrust for the traditional, a subversive take on the suburban home, a sense of anomie about cookie-cutter suburban life.

That being said, Mr. Ball rejects the idea that he’s anti-suburb. “It just takes place in suburbia,” he insists. “I live in suburbia. I don’t hate suburbia, I actually love it. I grew up in suburbia.”

In an odd way, the film can be seen as profoundly reactionary; it’s a harsh condemnation of America’s pornified culture and the damage that it is doing to the children raised within it. Early in the film, Jasira comes across a collection of adult magazines in her neighbor’s house; the images within lead to some self-exploration and, to put it mildly, wildly inappropriate physical contact with Mr. Vuoso.

The magazines and Mr. Vuoso’s sexual predation impact on Jasira’s view of herself, the adults around her and a society that makes the sexualization of teenagers acceptable. A scene in a photo parlor that sells glamour shots really drives the point home.

“I had originally dropped that scene from the script,” Mr. Ball says, but the novel’s author argued for its inclusion. Mr. Ball’s omission is understandable; in the novel, the trip to the photographer is relatively nondescript. “So how can I make it important?” he thought. “It occurred to me that women in our culture, especially, are encouraged to objectify themselves and to consider their attractiveness their main source of power and self-esteem at a really early age.”

The resultant scene - and Jasira’s revulsion at the behavior asked of her in front of the camera’s lens - is particularly poignant, a reminder of culture’s power in a world that suggests everything is OK, depending on your point of view.

Pubescent sexuality isn’t the only topic tackled in the film. Negligent and abusive parenting comes up, as does racism and its impact.

In our interview, Mr. Ball refuses to make value judgments about the characters in the “Towelhead” universe.

“Nobody sits down and says, ‘I’m going to do a despicable thing; I’m going to do an evil thing because I’m a soulless, evil, twisted freak,’” Mr. Ball says. “People do things because they’re in pain and because they’re weak, and because they themselves have been traumatized and hurt or damaged along the way in some terrible way.”

“Towelhead” is certainly full of damaged people. Whether audiences will buy Mr. Ball’s disavowal of any intent to judge his characters - or see, on the contrary, a progressive morality tale featuring an all too predictable cast of victims and victimizers - remains to be seen.

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