Towelhead

SHARE

As if being an adolescent teenager weren’t difficult enough, Jasira — the uncertain but strong-willed 13-year-old in “Towelhead” — is also an Arab-American living in Texas in the midst of the 1990 Gulf War. You want more? The family man two doors down has the hots for her.

How can such stuff be the basis of comedy? By putting it in the hands of Alan Ball, the writer of “American Beauty” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” Ball, making his big-screen directorial debut, has a good track record with suburban treachery and social taboos. His adaptation of Alicia Erian’s novel is often squirmy but never exploitative or sleazy.

Eighth-grader Jasira (played by Summer Bishil, who was 18 when the film was shot) has lived with her American mother (Maria Bello) for years but is sent to live with her father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi), after Mom’s boyfriend takes too much of a liking to her.

Rifat lives in Houston, where he works for NASA. He is Lebanese and strict — not a Muslim, though. He is Christian, “like everyone else in Texas,” Jasira says. He has Old World ideas about parenting and chastity. When Jasira starts getting her period, he’ll only buy her pads, not tampons. Why? “Tampons are for married women.” Now you know.

Jasira takes a job babysitting Zack Vuoso (Chase Ellison), the 10-year-old brat two doors down. It’s Zack’s dad (Aaron Eckhart) who becomes overly fond of Jasira, whose mature beauty and open, hopeful face make her look like someone who can be taken advantage of.

Meanwhile, Jasira is experiencing a sexual awakening. She learns how to have orgasms without even really trying and looks at girlie magazines that Zack keeps in his closet. It’s not that she’s sexually attracted to women; it’s just that her hormones are running wild and she has no one to talk to about such things.

All of the adults in Jasira’s life are immature and petty, with the exception of the couple next door, Gil (Matt Letscher) and Melina (Toni Collette). Melina senses inappropriateness between Jasira and Mr. Vuoso and is well aware of Rifat’s uselessness when it comes to parenting. She and Gil offer their home as a safe haven if Jasira ever needs it.

The young people in Jasira’s life aren’t much better. She gets taunted at school with the title slur and others; in one delightfully ironic instance she’s called a “sand n*****” — by an African-American kid.

His name is Thomas (Eugene Jones), and he soon apologizes and confesses his fondness for Jasira. He’s a horny teenager, of course, but he’s also respectful and kind to Jasira. He is more concerned about her well-being than Mr. Vuoso, for example, who simply takes what he wants.

Ball does not shy away from the details of Jasira’s experiences. Menstrual cycles, condoms, the shaving of pubic hair, and the physical impact of losing one’s virginity are all addressed as necessary, and it can be uncomfortable to watch at times.

Yet Ball is clearly on Jasira’s side. He lets her keep her dignity at all times, and he gives the film an optimistic, twinkling tone. As in “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under,” it is possible to smile and cringe at the same time.

Summer Bishil’s performance as Jasira is key. The charismatic young actress conveys vulnerability but not weakness. Even though Jasira is victimized, she does not come across as a victim, and the viewer instantly likes and sympathizes with her.

The rest of the cast is good, too, with Aaron Eckhart and Toni Collette as the stand-outs. Peter Macdissi earns laughs as Jasira’s bafflingly hypocritical father; I just wish the character were developed into something more than just a caricature.

Bad things happen in this film, no question. But Ball is not interested in being shocking just for the sake of being shocking. Nothing is gratuitous, and nothing is so bad that it can’t be overcome in the end.

B+ (1 hr., 55 min.; R, a lot of centerfold-type nudity, scattered harsh profanity, some unsettling sexual situations.)

SHARE