There's a difference between provocative and profound, and writer/director Alan Ball (American Beauty writer, Six Feet Under creator) confuses the two. Towelhead sets out to shock with its sexually frank and purposefully dark coming-of-age story. Presenting a scornful view of American suburbia, Ball's graceless and contrived exercise in cynicism is also unexpectedly honest and, at times, quite moving. It's the kind of emotionally schizophrenic work that's created by promising young filmmakers, not middle-aged Hollywood fixtures.
Based on a novel by Alicia Erian and set during the first Gulf War, Towelhead follows 13-year-old Jasira (newcomer Summer Bishil), the mixed-race daughter of a neurotically selfish white mother (Maria Bello), who ships her off to live with her abusive Lebanese immigrant father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi). A NASA engineer, Rifat lives in a well-groomed Houston suburb surrounded by Bush-cheering rednecks. There's an odious little boy and his predatory Army reservist dad (Aaron Eckhart), an overprotective pregnant neighbor (Toni Colette), a black boyfriend, and, of course, the relentless taunts of bigoted schoolmates. In other words, it's another example of Ball's obsessively bleak view of suburban decay.
Caught in this exhaustive obstacle course of human ugliness, Jasira experiences the first pangs of sexual desire, encouraging Ball to launch a full-out assault on America's puritanical sense of propriety: Porno magazines, masturbation, bloody tampons, used condoms, and, tragically, rape are all stirred into a heady broth of claustrophobic melodrama. And there's the rub. It's tempting to dismiss Ball's campy manipulations as immature and heavy-handed, but it would be a mistake to ignore his sincere presentation of dysfunctional sexuality and confused adolescence. Beyond its knee-jerk desire to outrage, Towelhead pointedly indicts America for bombarding young women with an aggressively sexualized identity, then punishing them for responding to it.
Ball's script is perversely and refreshingly evenhanded in its sympathies and condemnation of his static characters: He has the unfortunate view that people are either unhealthily repressed or soulfully liberated. (Only Rifat, whose hypocritical tyranny is played for laughs and scares, is allowed the suggestion of change.) Thankfully, the terrific cast blunts Ball's lesser instincts, providing each role with gravity and depth. Eckhart stands out, shoehorning some desperate humanity into his depraved predator. Only Bishil comes up short; she's a beautiful cipher whose choices are inferred rather than informed.
Much of what makes Towelhead unnecessarily course is Ball's tentative work behind the camera. As a first-time feature film director, he shows little talent for dramatic composition or finesse. He rarely lets the image speak for itself and is unable to evoke the necessary subjective viewpoint this subject requires. Working against his strength--ensemble drama--he isolates his characters in one-on-one exchanges that lack the dynamism of colliding emotions.
Nevertheless, Towelhead tries to challenge its audience with uncomfortable issues, and takes seriously the hormonal time bomb of female adolescence. Ball's dramatic instincts may be arrested by immaturity, but his desire to pillory the mean little suburbs that proudly fly American flags while ignoring privacy and cheerleading bigotry and war is grist for his liberal audience's mill. When you consider the blandness of most studio-produced dramas, a little outrage can be pretty revitalizing.