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‘Towelhead’ is sure to shock

If director Todd Solondz were to bring a Judy Blume book to the screen, “Towelhead” would be the result.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If director Todd Solondz were to bring a Judy Blume book to the screen, “Towelhead” would be the result.

With equal parts dark comedy and even darker drama, this coming-of-age tale takes an unflinching look not just at the awkwardness of growing up but the potential pain and humiliation.

It’s sure to anger people, and not just for the title, which comes from the novel by Alicia Erian, the film’s source material. Originally, the movie went by the name “Nothing Is Private” when it debuted a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival. Calling it “Towelhead,” an offensive term for a person of Arab ancestry, seems like an intentional shock, but then again, so does much of the movie’s content — an attempt to shake us up and make us think.

In directing his first film, Oscar-winning “American Beauty” screenwriter Alan Ball holds nothing back, which is admirable in its attempt at realism — and yet, some viewers will certainly perceive its exploration of teen sexuality as exploitative.

The performances make the material more human and accessible, though, mainly from the film’s brave young star, Summer Bishil. Considering how well she handles such complex scenes, it’s hard to believe this is her first movie role.

Bishil stars as Jasira, a 13-year-old who is sent by her American mother (Maria Bello) to live in Houston with her strict Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi of Ball’s TV series “Six Feet Under”). Why? Because of some inappropriate activity between mom’s boyfriend and the girl, which jolts us from the start. (Bishil was 18 during shooting.)

While there, Jasira must navigate not just the difficulty of being different culturally in her predominantly white suburb, but also the conflicting physical and emotional urges welling within her. And the various men surrounding her don’t always have her best interest in mind in that regard.

Her father, Rifat, is a swarm of contradictions. He’s Arab but Christian and he hates Saddam Hussein (the film takes place during the first Gulf War). He’s an officious, uptight prude who scolds Jasira for dressing too scantily but he also brazenly makes out with his new girlfriend in the kitchen. Macdissi finds the innate absurdity in the character, and keeps us from hating such a buffoon.

Far worse is their neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), a married Army reservist waiting to be called into action who can’t keep himself from leering at Jasira. He was obviously a bit creepy even before he arranged to have Jasira baby-sit his 11-year-old son, and from there, his relationship with the girl escalates with startling speed. Eckhart, who shares some of the most raw, uncomfortable moments with Bishil, is in a tough spot: His character is obviously a villain, yet he also has to show some glimmers of vulnerability to help us understand his twisted motivation.

Then there’s Thomas (Eugene Jones), a horny classmate who becomes Jasira’s de facto boyfriend. He’s probably a good guy at heart. But Thomas is also black, and so Rifat prohibits Jasira from seeing him — in essence, denying her of a rare, positive force in her life.

Another positive influence comes from pregnant next-door neighbor Melina (Toni Collette in earth mother mode), who sees what’s happening to Jasira and struggles to protect her. But the point of “Towelhead” is that Jasira must endure all these various forms of abuse on her own and come out stronger for them in the end.

Calling it a tough lesson to learn would be an understatement, but that’s also what makes the ending such a letdown. For a film that had been rooted in a bracing honesty, “Towelhead” wraps up way too neatly.