Towelhead (review)

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Shock Power

There was a bit of an uproar back in the fall of 2008 when the Toronto Film Festival hit Nothing Is Private got its theatrical release, for its title had been changed after its festival appearance. It was now called Towelhead, which is kinda like calling a movie Nigger… or it would be, if more Americans understood that towelhead is considered derogatory among Arab-Americans, people who are mistaken for Arab by the kind of ignorant bigots who would call someone towelhead (such as Sikhs, who are Indian), and anyone who decries ignorance and bigotry no matter what their ethnicity, religion, or skin color is.
Oh, are you shocked by my use of the word nigger? Then you understand how some people felt about the title of this film. And, indeed, the only extras on the new Region 1 DVD release of the movie are two roundtable discussions that include, in various combinations, writer-director Alan Ball, Arab-American novelist Alicia Erian (upon whose book the film is based [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]), star Summer Bishil (an American of Arabic and Mexican descent), star Peter Macdissi (of Lebanese origin)… and Hussam Ayloush from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Rajdeep Singh Jolly, legal director of Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, both of whom object to the title. The conversation is civiled and respectful, even when someone drops a wowser, like Jolly’s “the title of this movie is a marketing ploy,” and it’s wildly intriguing.

You see, I’m not sure that the provocation of the title isn’t warranted. There’s never an excuse for bigotry and namecalling, and certainly those who would use the term towelhead are doing so in an attempt to be insulting, mean-spirited, and contemptuous. But I’m not sure if those who wouldn’t use the term but don’t realize quite how offensive it is don’t benefit from the kind of discussion we see on the DVD here. and the kind of discussion the film itself raises. If a title that sounds even only vaguely bad or shocking to people gets them to watch Towelhead, then that’s a good thing.

Then again, no one has ever called me towelhead.

This needs to be seen because it is an astonishing movie in lots of ways. Sure, it does deal with the casual racism and bigotry that 13-year-old Jasira Maroun (Bishil) encounters in her daily life as an Arab-American teenager in suburban Texas at the time of Gulf War I. Some of it is truly appalling, as when it comes from a black boy whom you’d think would know how hurtful and pointless it is, and some of it is appalling for the thoughtlessness and willful ignorance it represents, as when people mispronounce her name without even bothering to ask her to help them out, without even realizing they’re being rude about it.

But even more astonishing is that Towelhead is that extreme rarity of American film: a movie that is about a teenage girl’s fumblings through the confusions of early adolescence, about figuring out what sex is all about, discovering some of the amazing things her own body can do, and simply finding a way to break free of the overarching influence of her parents and learn who she is herself. We’re so used to seeing movies that deal in so many different ways — dramatically, comedically, and downright grossout-ly — with boys’ bodies and the embarrassing things that happen to them in adolescence, but can you recall a single other movie that deals with a girl’s getting her first period? This is something that happens to half the human race, and can be momentarily traumatic and as publicly embarrassing as an unexpected erection is for a teenage boy… and the only other movie that I can even think of that touches on this rite of passage is Carrie, a horror movie about a girl with demonic powers. Hardly reality-based.

Oh, I don’t want to scare off all those squeamish boys who can’t deal with such reality. The period stuff is but a tiny part of Jasira’s tale, which encompasses refuting the bigotry of her father (Macdissi) toward, well, almost anyone who isn’t almost exactly like him; navigating her first boyfriend (Eugene Jones) and a variety of sexual firsts (first orgasm, first intercourse), and coping with an attraction toward her handsome neighbor (Aaron Eckhart: The Dark Knight, No Reservations) — which is dealt with in a smart, wise way that understands that a 13-year-old girl is still a child even as she is beginning to explore her sexuality, and is not appropriate fodder for even handsome neighbor men she might flirt with, no matter how “sexy” and “grownup” she seems.

But boys who are smart, boys who like girls and want girls to like them would do well to study Towelhead for its peek into the “mysteries” of girls’ lives that Hollywood feels the need to keep secret (this is not a studio film, needless to say). As Bishil herself says in one of those roundtable discussions, the genuinely shocking thing about Towelhead is that “it’s about a young girl acknowledging her own participation in her existence, and going forward with that knowledge… it’s not about a towelhead, it’s not about an Arab-American, it’s not about a 13-year-old girl, it’s about a human being.”

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Chris Beaubien
Wed, Jan 07, 2009 5:29pm

Another film that deals with the unpleasant business of a girl’s adolescence was Ginger Snaps – another horror film – back in 2000. That one juxtaposed the menstruation cycle with the werewolf-transforming lunar cycle. Sad, I know.

JoshB
JoshB
Wed, Jan 07, 2009 6:00pm

I was just about to say Ginger Snaps. Good movie. The sequels are solid too. 89% on rottentomatoes. I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

Newbs
Wed, Jan 07, 2009 8:23pm

Ginger Snaps was really good. I tried to watch the sequels, but I could tell pretty early that the ball had been dropped. Nice lightning strike though, with the first one.

MaSch
MaSch
Thu, Jan 08, 2009 4:39am

Also, if I remember correctly, the protagonist in “My Girl” had her first period during that movie.

Another thing: How is it that a sexual relationship between a grownup man and a teenage girl, no matter how mature she seems, is strictly wrong (I agree), but there can be a relationship between a teenage boy and a grownup woman which “isn’t inappropriate in any way” (see “The reader”, and here I disagree)? Especially since girls are said to grow up faster than boys.

Jack
Jack
Thu, Jan 08, 2009 4:41am

Didn’t My Girl have a bit about Vada getting her first period and thinking she was dying? “Don’t come back for 5 to 7 days,” all that?

shoop
shoop
Thu, Jan 08, 2009 7:46am

In “Holiday Heart,” aging drag queen Ving Rhames, who is caring for crack-whore Alfre Woodard’s adolescent daughter, must deal with the daughter’s first period. I think that description speaks for itself.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Thu, Jan 08, 2009 10:58am

How is it that a sexual relationship between a grownup man and a teenage girl, no matter how mature she seems, is strictly wrong (I agree), but there can be a relationship between a teenage boy and a grownup woman which “isn’t inappropriate in any way” (see “The reader”, and here I disagree)?

As with everything else, it’s the tone of the movie, the age of the people involved (the character in *The Reader* is almost 16, not 13), whether there are power/exploitation issues, which there clearly are in *Towelhead*… and I *did* mention that there was something not-right in the read-to-me aspect of the relationship in *The Reader.*

Every movie has to be approached for what it is itself, because they’re all different packages.

Especially since girls are said to grow up faster than boys.

I really do wonder who came up with this idea. Probably people looking to justify older men having sex with young girls.

Vergil
Vergil
Sat, Jan 10, 2009 7:57am

I really do wonder who came up with this idea.

Yeah, these people must be crazy.
http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2005/05/16/Study_Girls_reach_milestones_before_boys/UPI-32781116297612/

And these…
http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2504460&page=2

Not to mention these…
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g2602/is_0002/ai_2602000265

Yup, those cigar smoking old-boy network pedophile conspiritors are everywhere!

Sarah
Sarah
Sat, Jan 10, 2009 8:55am

Ooh, I want to see this now.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Sat, Jan 10, 2009 4:35pm

Vergil, all those stories to link to are about *averages,* not about individuals.

Vergil
Vergil
Sat, Jan 10, 2009 5:24pm

MaryAnn, exactly. Which is the idea to which we were refering. Or did you think the idea is that EVERY girl grows up faster than EVERY boy? I’m pretty sure that’s not the idea to which MaSch was refering…

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Sat, Jan 10, 2009 8:22pm

I think when people make reference to how girls *generally* grow up faster than boys, they are using in that in some way to imply that a particular individual girl in question must automatically therefore be mature enough to handle… whatever is at issue. Could be everything from “you should know better than your brother” to older men-girls/younger women relationships.

MaryAnn
MaryAnn
Sat, Jan 10, 2009 8:24pm

Of course, if people really believed this — that girls grow up faster than boys — then we’d raise the driving act and drinking age and voting age for boys, or lower them for girls.

I mean, whether it can be scientifically measured that girls mature faster than boys, our society typically only accepts this in ways that don’t necessarily benefit girls in any way, and perhaps even hinder them, if they should be given the benefit of earlier maturity and don’t get it.

Vergil
Vergil
Mon, Jan 12, 2009 2:06pm

Could be, but at least you now know that the idea has at least some basis in documented scientific literature and isn’t just some conspiracy of perverts.

Steve
Steve
Sat, Feb 21, 2009 12:24pm

This movie is based on a novel by the name of “Towelhead” written by a woman who happens to be a Professor of creative writing at Wellesley.

Saladinho
Saladinho
Sat, Jul 18, 2009 1:59pm

I saw this film last night (along with the extras) and thought it was well made.

The one thing I’m tired of, though, is the use of the N word to always illustrate “the point” of bigotry focused against other groups.

Bigotry and racism are entirely and explicitly understood concepts in their own right, but for some reason, even when blacks are not involved, it’s always ok and just fine to start using the N word over and over and going “Oh! Did that shock you? Now maybe you understand why people in other groups don’t like being called blankety blank.”

It’s like, if a white kid slaps a latin kid, and then some grownup runs up to the white kid and says: “Don’t do that! That’s wrong!” and some black kid comes diddy bopping along, and the grownup runs over and slaps the black kid, and the black kid starts crying, and then the grownup turns back to the white kid and goes: “See? See how that little black boy is crying? That’s how the little latin kid feels.”

somlal
Thu, Jul 23, 2009 9:17am

Why girls are faster matured in hot region than in cold region one?