There tend to be two types of misanthropy in movies.
One is the take-no-prisoners variety, a Kubrick-like disgust with humanity's failings that comes from somewhere genuine and sad, best exemplified right now by the Coen Brothers' widely underestimated Burn After Reading.
The other sadly more prevalent form erupts from a snickering safe zone of smarmy superiority--the preferred arena of American Beauty and Six Feet Under writer Alan Ball, who creates odd, unhappy characters for the express purpose of inviting his audience to feel better about themselves.
Ball is back at it with Towelhead, an empty provocation that's about as classy and subtle as its title. Based on the acclaimed novel by Alicia Erian, the movie desperately wants to be pushy and transgressive. But it's so airless and devoid of empathy for its subjects the whole film seems to take place inside a hermetically sealed bubble of smugness.
Summer Bishil stars as Jasira, a beleaguered half-Lebanese 13-year-old who's ultimately shuffled off to live in a Texas suburb with her estranged father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) after Mom's new boyfriend tries to help her shave her pubic hair. Jasira struggles with her burgeoning sexuality, fascinated in ways she can't explain by girlie mags and masturbation and traumatized by tampons to the point where a colleague of mine dubbed the film Are You There Allah? It's Me, Margaret.
Jasira's a blank slate. The presumably intentional flatness of Bishil's performance invites us to project whatever feelings we wish onto the character. Erian's novel was penned in the first-person, allowing us to glimpse an inner life that's woefully missing from Ball's ice-cold omniscient perspective. Jasira exists in the film as merely a device to illuminate the unfathomable cruelty and sadism of her friends, family and neighbors.
And what a loutish, venal lot they are! Rifat is a vicious martinet, perpetually torn between honoring his Lebanese heritage and pretending to be the most American guy on the block. As Gulf War I ratchets up in the background, he finds himself getting into a "my flag is bigger than yours" competitions with the family next door, trash-talking both Saddam and Bush Sr. in equal measure.
Rifat's internal conflict might have been fodder for a fascinating movie, exploring an immigrant's pressures of assimilation during wartime. But Ball prefers to keep him simmering in the background as a cardboard villain, exploding into violence whenever the melodrama needs a bit of goosing along.
It's impossible to figure how Jasira's mom (Maria Bello) ever ended up with this guy in the first place, as their few interactions devolve into shrill, abusive spectacles. Bello's character remains so undefined her motivations are baffling from scene to scene.
There's also the shallow high school boyfriend who's only interested in sex, and the little brat across the street who won't stop hurling racist slurs. But the movie rallies most of our disgust for Aaron Eckhart's neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, an Army reservist and proud Texan who graphically molests young Jasira.
Ball's dealing with some seriously loaded imagery here, basically depicting the U.S. raping a Middle Eastern virgin. But despite his penchant for constantly framing Eckhart in front of an American flag, the metaphor never coalesces into anything beyond mere exploitation. Towelhead keeps kicking around explosive signifiers and icky shock-value gotchas that Ball doesn't have a clue how to handle.
Remember how the violent climax of American Beauty hinged on a goofy case of mistaken identity that wouldn't be out of place on Three's Company? Well, Ball's background in hacky sitcom writing reasserts itself once again in Towelhead, preposterously positioning all of the principals together for a pseudocomedic dinner party where the tension hinges on the presence of a used condom someone forgot to flush down toilet.
I guess it earns points for audacity, but to what end? Towelhead wallows in humiliation and abuse, pointing fingers and giggling at sketchily defined straw men that exist only to arouse our contempt. If you're going to traffic in this kind of unsettling imagery, shouldn't it be for more than cheap laughs?