There's been some controversy and outrage surrounding Alan Ball's adaptation of Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead, which I might understand more if I hadn’t read the original work. People are calling the film "abhorrent," "ethically reprehensible and irresponsible," and "gratuitously offensive." And yet, this isn't really Ball’s fault. His adaptation is completely faithful to the novel — I don’t think there’s even one line of dialogue or one bit of action that isn’t in the book — so why wasn't there this reaction to the novel?
The story is shocking and disturbing. It’s a coming-of-age tale focusing on a young woman (Jasira, played poignantly by Summer Bishil in the film) who is half-Lebanese and half-white, living in a largely white Texas community with a strict father and a leery older male neighbor. Everything Jasira does (from using tampons to dating a black boy) seems to anger her father and disappoint her mother (played by Maria Bello). So, Jasira confuses the attention she gets from her leery neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) with a kind of true affection, which he easily exploits. Jasira's young sense of self and her burgeoning understanding of sexuality get all mixed up with abuse and humiliation and — occasionally — pleasure. This is just the tip-top of the iceberg, so read more.
There are things that will make a person’s stomach turn in this story, but there’s also truth, humor and redemption. The book is told from Jasira’s childlike point of view, offering readers an agonizing glimpse into her naivete as well as her innocent hopefulness. Lacking this insight (as the film version provides little, if any such glimpse into Jasira’s interior world), and perhaps because book-to-film adaptations often must include only the “big” plot points, the complexities of Jasira’s experiences are lost and all we see is a disturbing 2-dimensional story about a girl in an unfortunate situation.
In some ways I can understand the reactions some people have with the movie; with no real insight into Jasira’s inner landscape, it appears to be shocking for the sake of shock. But Alan Ball has never been one to avoid the ugly, sinister aspects of the human experience. In American Beauty, which he wrote, he obviously touches on some unpleasant and taboo topics, and perhaps one of the problems with Towelhead is that he actually goes there.
Frustratingly, some people are focusing on one scene in which Jasira discovers a used tampon, and holds it up for Jasira — and us — to see. Apparently this is too disgusting for some viewers to which Ball had a superb retort: "We can make movies like There's Something About Mary, using semen as hair gel, and it's a huge hit — but to show a bloody tampon is considered shocking. I think that says a lot about our culture's attitude towards women and towards female sexuality." My thoughts exactly. The horror and repulsion with which menstruation is so often treated is repulsive in itself. As Ball points out, "We all have mothers and we're all are here because of the way that female sexuality works." We just don't want to acknowledge it, apparently.
Obviously, this story is provocative, but maybe we should be provoked. Having read the book, I wasn’t shocked by anything in the film because none of it was a surprise, though I definitely sat there anticipating with dread the more upsetting scenes. I appreciate what Ball (and the excellent cast) has done with the movie – it must have been a challenge, to say the least. But between the two mediums, in this case, it would probably be wiser (and more interesting) to read the book.
Photos courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures