Thursday, October 02, 2008

"Towelhead" aka "Nothing Is Private"


When I saw the movie poster for “Towelhead” my first association was the comic parody “Baghead”, reviewed here recently (Aug 25, 2008). In fact, that is a coincidence; the new film directed by Alan Ball and distributed by Warner Independent Pictures has an alternative title, “Nothing Is Private.” It is definitely in R-rated territory. The "Towelhead" title was the title of the original novel by Alicia Erian.

That is so among the more collective, patriarchal cultures of the Islamic world as well as Christian families in suburban Houston. This is one of those films where reviewers don’t disclose much of the plot or substance, and it doesn’t sound at first as if the setup or characters would be all that interesting. But they indeed are.

The colloquial title of the movie seems to refer to at least informal masking of women in middle eastern cultures, in opposition to what goes on behind closed doors. Thirteen-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) arrives at Houston to live with her autocratic Lebanese Christian father Rifat (Peter Macdissi, actually born in Lebanon). You know there are problems when, at the airport, his conversation seems to blame her for the plane’s being late. They settle down for Christmas and the mild Texas winter while then following the US war against Saddam Hussein at the beginning of 1991.

Now, in a nice ranch house neighborhood (that rather looks like the area near EDS in Plano) there are the neighbors. One is an African American teen Thomas (Eugene Jones III) out to prove his manhood. That isn’t too surprising today, other than that it gives the script the chance to play the race card. Rifat even says, “I didn’t make the world the way it is.” The other big complication is much more troubling. Manly Aaron Eckhart plays Travis, a reserve soldier claiming he will be deployed to the Middle East for “humanitarian” purposes. He behaves deceptively enough at first, but pretty soon we realize he is a creep, and, with his staged and invasive advances against Jasira, you expect Chris Hansen to show up anytime from NBC Dateline and “Peej”. In fact, the police eventually show up and cart him off in handcuffs, and you want to see more screen time seeing him get what he deserves.

In fact, the behaviors of the male characters in this drama demonstrate what’s wrong with, and what’s sometimes right with, the “heterosexual world.” Travis already has a family, with a precocious and curious grade school son Zach (Chase Ellison) who somewhat inadvertently jump starts the complications to follow with his schoolboy voyeurism for dirty mags. But Travis, Thomas and Rifat (in different ways) seem obsessed with “possessing virginity,” and the context (including Jasira’s culture-driven obsession with certain intimate cosmetic preparations that cause her mother (Maria Bello) to ship her to her dad to start with) suggests that they perceive this as how they will provide families and “justify” their lives as competitive men. On the other hand, a neighboring family, Melina and Gil Hines (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher), with Melina very obviously pregnant, at one point shelter Jasira and act much more like a family that has accepted “modern family values” while still remaining faithful and disciplined. At one point, Melina mentions the social problems that result when married adults (especially women) have to "compete" with the fantasy images in dirty magazines.

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