This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Year of Release: 2007
Rating: R for strong sexual content, sex involving a minor, and some language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
I’m not going to lie – the fact that Towelhead stars Aaron Eckhart may have been the primary influence in my decision to scoop it out of the five dollar movie bin. But I’m happy to report that despite its generally mediocre reviews and little-known female lead, entertaining and teachable moments both abound in this film.
Directed by American Beauty’s Alan Ball, Towelhead is the coming-of-age story of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a thirteen year old Lebanese American growing up during the Gulf War (side note: the early nineties fashions are expertly executed here). From the film’s opening scene, we learn that Jasira doesn’t exactly have an easy time of it: Her mother’s live-in boyfriend helps Jasira shave her pubic hair, which causes her mother (Maria Bello) to go ballistic, blame Jasira, and send her daughter packing to live with her stern Lebanese father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) in Houston, Texas. Making matters worse is Jasira’s creepy new army reservist neighbor Travis Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), his oblivious wife, and their racist son whom Jasira must babysit while enduring endless taunts and racial slurs.
Jasira’s sexual awakening is sparked by a pile of nudie magazines she discovers one afternoon while babysitting at the Vuoso house. She likes the way the magazines make her feel, and learns to rock herself back and forth to the point of orgasm. Travis is at first outraged upon discovering Jasira with his secret stash, but his anger quickly dissolves to intrigue when Jasira tells him that the magazines give her physical pleasure, and he discreetly drops a few off at her doorstep one night for her to keep. After an incident with the Vuosos’ son turns ugly, however (Zach calls Jasira a towelhead and she hits him in the arm), Travis angrily shows up late at night and demands his magazines back. As Jasira turns to go get them, Travis rapes her.
From this point forward, the spark of Jasira’s sexual awareness spreads like a roaring flame. She starts spending time with a classmate named Thomas and eventually sleeps with him. Travis Vuoso, despite his initial horror over fingering a thirteen year old girl, is soon “courting” Jasira by taking her to dinner in the evenings. During all of this, Rifat is off spending time with his girlfriend du jour, and we begin to understand that virtually every man in Jasira’s life has threatened, abused, or abandoned her in some way. Thomas, a generally nice kid exploring his own young sexuality, is the only exception to this rule, and along with a concerned pregnant couple across the street (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher), he seems to be the only character who genuinely enjoys Jasira’s company and looks out for her best interests.
If you have any interest in feminist and/or intersectionalist theory as many of my readers over at Role/Reboot do, this film is for you. Beyond the politics of being a Middle Eastern American during a war in Iraq and holding minority-on-minority racist views (Jasira’s father explicitly forbids her from seeing Thomas simply because he is black), this film should resonate with any woman who has been or felt objectified. Jasira is incapable of exercising any sort of agency over her own body due to the shame she is made to feel about her large breasts, her use of tampons (“Those are for married ladies,” Rifat reminds her in the grocery store”), and the smooth power Travis holds over her (he reprimands her for looking at pictures of “sluts,” yet traps her into being his own sexual plaything). She views her body as men would view it, until toward the end of the film when she walks out of a “Glamour Shot” studio at the mall and decides once and for all to make decisions for herself. Bishil, eighteen at the time of filming, radiates as Jasira even if the scenes between her and Eckhart are at times painful to watch. And uncomfortable subject matter aside, Ball does throw in some occasional comedic highlights that don’t at all feel forced: Jasira guiltily stores the Vuosos’ dead pet cat Snowball in the freezer; Rifat, cradling a few boxes of feminine products in his arms, asks Jasira if she would “describe her situation as light, medium, or heavy?” Heavy, indeed.