Towelhead
Warner Independent Pictures
At the Showcase

4 out of 5 stars

“Towelhead” is shocking. And it’s supposed to be. From the racial-slur-for-a-title to the blatantly provocative themes entwined in its bizarre, yet seemingly familiar story, this film will make you feel uneasy.

The story revolves around a young, half-Lebanese, half-Caucasian girl named Jasira (relative newcomer Summer Bishil). She moves into her Lebanese father’s house for the beginning of a new school year after spending time with her white mother. The change in households not only reflects a physical change for Jesira, but also a cultural one. Steeped in Lebanese tradition, Jasira’s father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi, “Six Feet Under”), is very strict. Rifat’s pervasiveness in all facets of Jasira’s life is so well illustrated that you can’t help but feel empathetic towards Jasira’s miserable life. While highly captivating, the father-daughter dynamic takes a backseat to the themes of racism and sexuality that drive the film.

Currently in the transition to womanhood, Jasira is in an awkward stage in her life. But her inability to explore her own sexuality is not only manifested in the rigid control her father has over her, but also because Jasira is an outsider. The kids at school mock her, the school janitor talks to her in Spanish and the neighbor’s son calls her all sorts of stereotypical names. Again, the movie does an amazing job of connecting the audience with Jasira’s plight.

To complicate things further, Jasira’s next-door neighbor Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart, “Thank You for Smoking”) is an army reservist. The movies takes place during the initial stages of the war in Iraq, so Travis is judgmental about Jasira’s father. Nonetheless, Jasira is intrigued by him. Travis’s own issues become apparent, so when he begins noticing Jasira as more than the babysitter for his son, the plot becomes compelling and vexed to the point where audience members will likely feel uncomfortable.

Jasira is only 13 years old, a fact that’s difficult to ignore. Other peoples’ lust for her, combined with her own obsession with adult magazines and her overactive sexual drive, are indicative of a highly unrealistic and dramatized plot. Toss in some racist overtones and it’s not surprising to see moviegoers get up and leave their seats.

And this is precisely what makes the movie so beautiful. The film is simply hard to bear at times. All the elements of the movie are starkly prevalent in our lives — the sexuality, the bigotry, the alienation — and are issues that society has worked to eliminate but which, as the film points out, have clearly not disappeared. The movie does a great job addressing and commentating on these topics.

With superb acting from Bishil and Macdissi, along with an engaging, albeit controversial storyline, “Towelhead” is a strong film. Its insights into modern day prejudice and sexuality make the film one of the most powerful social commentaries to come out in a long time.

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