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Towelhead: Sad, Disturbing, Just Like the Book

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

.

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


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bransugar79 bransugar79 8 years
I really want to read this book. I hadn't heard of it before I saw the movie trailer which does look disturbing, but life itself is disturbing. I think it could be a very thought provoking story and the subject matter seems especially relevant now
foxie foxie 8 years
Doesn't sound too bad to me....?
Entertainment Entertainment 8 years
tlsgirl, that is so true. And understanding it (and acknowledging that teens do have sex and they are sometimes confused by their sexual feelings, etc.) is also so much better than shaming people into not talking about it ever.
tlsgirl tlsgirl 8 years
I really want to see this. I heard an interview a few weeks ago with Alan Ball, and he was saying that adults underestimate teenage sexuality so much, which is part of the problem that people had with the movie. I just think that's so true. Just because people don't want their teenagers to have these feelings, doesn't mean that they won't, and understanding it is so much better than ignoring it.
ilanac13 ilanac13 8 years
i'm actually looking forward to seeing the movie - especially now since you're telling me that it's really true to the book. i think that a lot of the time we don't get to see movies that keep with the story and well if this one does then maybe it has a chance. it's definitely not a soft cushy movie but full of a few key ideals..and i think that it'll translate well into a movie.
yihaw10 yihaw10 8 years
I haven't read the book, but found the movie to be incredibly thought-provoking and relevant to today. Yes there were many scenes that I could have done without, but he is known to create images that stay with you. Beyond that, her story is sad, and you cannot help but blame those around her who are responsible for upbringing. Thank goodness for her good neighbors...
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