Oh, that naughty, naughty Alan Ball. With "Towelhead," the writer of "American Beauty" and creator of "Six Feet Under" finally gets to direct a feature film, and, boy, does he want to make middle American audiences squirm. He succeeds, but in almost all the wrong ways.
Adapted from a novel by Alicia Erian, "Towelhead" is the story of Jasira Maroun (Summer Bishil), a 13-year-old Arab-American Candide in suburbia. After her mother (Maria Bello) catches her sleazy boyfriend teaching the girl all about bikini waxing, Jasira is sent to Houston to live with her father, Rifat, a tightly wound NASA scientist (Peter Macdissi). The year is 1991, and the Lebanese-born Rifat is gung-ho for the imminent Gulf War and Saddam Hussein's expected overthrow.
He's less prepared for the hormones erupting under his own roof. When Jasira comes to the breakfast table her first morning wearing short shorts, daddy hauls off and gives her a loving paternal crack across the face.
That's for starters. Taunted as a "camel jockey" at school and treated as an errant brat by her parents, Jasira has no idea how to define herself. The message of the novel and of the movie - and it's a worthy one - is that growing up sane is impossible in an America both hypersexualized and puritanical. The culture commodifies lust then punishes us for buying, and any young girl trying to navigate between "virgin" and "whore" as puberty kicks in is doomed. So Jasira's first period is a calamity that results in her father admonishing her to avoid tampons, since they're for married women only.
On one hand are the girlie magazines she discovers while babysitting the neighbor's obnoxious kid (Chase Ellison), tantalizing Jasira with erotic, all-American visions of happiness and breasts. On the other hand is the neighbor himself, a sweet-talking Army reservist named Travis (Aaron Eckhart) who can't keep his hands to himself. At least he gives her attention, so does it matter that it's the wrong kind?
There are scenes in "Towelhead" to make a parent cringe, obviously. There are more that just make a sentient moviegoer go nuts with frustration, because Ball stacks the deck while leaving his cards unexamined. Macdissi does what he can with the role of the father, but the character's a hateful cartoon; just as thinly conceived is the hip neighbor couple (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher) who offer Jasira a copy of "Changing Bodies, Changing Lives" and the proper socially progressive sympathy.
The movie isn't only about sex but also race (Jasira's courted by an African-American classmate played by Eugene Jones; her dad wants none of him) and class and gender and politics and religion and ethnicity. Wait, I forgot statutory rape. Not even a seasoned director could balance all that on one plate, let alone a first-timer. Ball's trying to be honest about adolescent coming of age, but since he's dishonest about everything else, the movie collapses in on itself, ending with a laughably pat resolution that renders "Towelhead" a Bizarro World "After School Special."
Bishil gives a touching performance in the circumstances, but it's hard to play a confused character when the director's just as confused as you are. Both nymphet and victim, Jasira wanders through Ball's cracked America like an Arab-American Little Annie Fanny, as exploited behind the camera as she is in front of it. I kept thinking of Todd Solondz's "Happiness" (1998), another strip-mall parade of misery but one wracked with empathy for the monsters it portrays. "Towelhead" is just as hard to watch, but for its glib sanctimony instead.