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USA 2008
Directed by
Alan Ball
124 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars


Synopsis: When 13 year old Jasira (Summer Bishil) proves too much for her mother (Maria Bello) to cope with, she’s sent to live with her father Rifat (Peter Macdissi). As he struggles to deal with her burgeoning sexuality and his own love life, the next door neighbour Mr Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) is drawn to the confused and vulnerable young girl.

There’s something deeply unsettling about this deeply unsettling film. And that’s, well, unsettling. Let me explain. As a writer Alan Ball is rapidly on the path to becoming America's poet laureate of dysfunctional families. From American Beauty through to the teleseries Six Feet Under to this film, he’s consistently portrayed families that are both falling apart and holding together. The tensions which these opposing forces create drive much of his drama. Here he takes on the director’s hat as well, and delivers a film that is as blackly funny as American Beauty, but far darker than anything he’s done before. In American Beauty you had a middle-aged man fantasizing about a schoolgirl, here you have a middle-aged man who rapes a 13 year old girl. And while the adults are still just as childish as they were in any other work of Ball’s, here the children are at  far more at risk because of their parent’s self-involvement. It’s an ugly portrait of selfish love that’s painted here, but it’s leavened with the innocence of Jasira, who somehow manages to overcome the trials she’s put through, and in the end the film feels hopeful and almost joyous.

And that’s what’s so unsettling about the film.

On the one hand, you have a brilliantly acted, well written and immaculately crafted film about child molestation, teen sexual awakening, relationship breakdown and the struggles of adults to express love to each other and their children. On the other hand, you have a film that gets away far too easily with these things. By the end of the film Jasira has suffered so many traumas that her sunny good nature and loving kindness towards the people who have hurt her leaves you wondering if she’s retarded, wilfully self-harming, or just honestly that naively good natured.

Nobody copes with parental and sexual abuse as easily as Jasira does. In our mind, rape victims don’t smile and then try to be friends with their attackers in comically destructive scenes that bring chaos to their neighbourhoods. But here they do. Some might argue it’s a “magic realism” approach to the material, and there’s definitely a hyper-real quality to the film. But there’s daffy, and there’s dumb. Towelhead is too calculated in its sweet-sour recipe to convince once the critical faculties kick in. It’s something that doesn’t sit right, even as you are forced to acknowledge that the film is, indeed, thought-provoking, intelligent, heartfelt, and positive despite its darkness. What a wonderful film! How could you not like it? But while a film like Mysterious Skin managed to make its horrifying yet transcendent dénouement feel earned, this one draws you into an uplifting moment that on reflection feels like a cheap way out.

Like a paedophile on the prowl, that awfully nice guy who just seems to be a little too interested in being nice to you, this is a film you should be wary of. Impeccable, charming and likeable, but with something beneath the surface that feels like a giant lie, you still have to admire it, if only because it manages to be the very thing it warns against.




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