Towelhead (Ball, 2008)

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I’m trying to get through as many 2008 releases I want to see from now until March as I can, and tonight I decided to watch Alan Ball’s controversial Towelhead. The film is little more than a coming of age film that pushes the boundaries of political correctness. The title itself referring to a slur word uttered about Muslims, pointing already to unfair preconceptions, when we quickly realise that the protagonist is a Christian. The film itself, is about a thirteen year old girl who has the body of a young woman, and two parents that don’t seem to respect or care all that much about her. When the mother finds out about an inappropriate quasi sexual relationship between her daughter and boyfriend, she immediately sends her to her father. The mother not only blames her daughter for the incident, but seems completely unwilling to deal with her daughter’s puberty.

Jasira is a very shy girl, who is forced to handle and deal with this she fails to truly comprehend, and without any discernable support system. No one likes her, and the only attention she receives is from men who are sexually attracted to her. She is constantly bombarded with conflicting and damaging ideas about sex, and she herself turns to use it as a means of being loved. Without the affection from her parents, and being ostracized from her peers, she turns to masturbation and eventually two separate and very different sexual relationships. Her father’s views on sex and relationships are especially harmful to Jasira’s development, as they implant a guilt complex in her mind. Something as natural as menstruation or dressing like a girl are met with criticism, fear mongering and even violence.

Their neighbours are a family, a husband, wife and their child. Jasira is engaged as a babysitter, and this is where she first discovers dirty magazines and has her first orgasm. It’s also where she is confronted by the husband, who immediately seems attracted to her. At the very least, he doesn’t view or treat her appropriately for her age, and at worst he fails to see her as a human being. His first physical encounter with her is painful and traumatic, and though he seems to hold a great deal of regret, he later puts the blame on her and takes advantage of her once again. Between these encounters, Jasira meets her first friend, Thomas. He first calls her an offensive name when he finds out she is Lebanese, but apologizes thereafter and invites her to his house for dinner. They have a brief romantic/sexual moment, but it’s far different than the one with the neighbour. He’s not only gentle, but he asks her when and if he can do something. We still have the sense that there is certainly a part of her that is only consenting as a means of being “loved”, but there is also natural curiosity and affection.

The father condemns the relationship, even if he is ignorant of the intimacy they are engaged in. It’s on the grounds that the boy is black, though of course, he claims he is not a racist… as if her friend has been a black girl it would not have mattered. The father is a spring board of hypocrisy, though he never quite falls into the pre-conceptions that others hold against him. He is the voice the political and oppressive voice of the film, and he contrasts greatly against the family of honeymooners who are also neighbours. They are cultured and ambitious like him, but open and respectful. Jasira is able to find real comfort in their support, as well as the only real semblance of responsible and healthy parenting.

I’m not sure how well this film works as a satire, I don’t think it’s biting, critical or funny enough. Jasira’s pain is incredibly palpable however, and her trials and tribulations though exaggerated, her emotional and psychological evolution is never forced and startlingly real. One cannot help sympathise with her, a person who feels the need to apologize for existing, or being victimized. It’s hardly one of the best films of the year, but f you’re interesting in coming of age stories, especially about sexual awakening this might be a film worth checking out.  I really appreciated how they didn’t fall into the trap of sexualizing or romanticizing Jasira, the only moment that one could really say is arousing or outwardly sexy is a photoshoot, and she herself stops it because of a moral dilemma and an understanding of her vulnerability.
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3 responses to “Towelhead (Ball, 2008)

  1. I can’t say it’s really worth seeing, my review is more positive than it should be. It’s pretty reductionist, and lacks a lot of insight or depth. My opinion of it is lowering by the minute it seems… but it is at the very least sorta interesting.

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