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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Towelhead (review)

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.”


MPAA: rated R for strong disturbing sexual content and abuse involving a young teen, and for language

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine

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