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Photograph by Dale Robinette
SCHOOL DAZE : Jasira (Summer Bishil) strikes up a forbidden relationship with a student (Eugene Jones) at her high school.

American Ugly

Thirteen will get you 20 in 'Towelhead,' Alan Ball's expose of racism and underage sexuality in America.

By Richard von Busack

The fact that Summer Bishil keeps her face straight when delivering the line "I miss looking at your magazines; they make me have orgasms" is evidence of this novice actor's bravery. That Alan Ball directs it in the first place is evidence of his own tin ear. Ball (Six Feet Under) has a sitcom streak even in his tragic moments; his lines are all written to be zingers, as if there is a laugh track to come. Ball's Towelhead is as much like TV's King of the Hill as his script for American Beauty was like TV's Married With Children. And as on King of the Hill, Ball's side on this spicy material is strictly in the middle of the road. The director's surrogate is the neighbor Melina (Toni Collette); this caring pregnant liberal makes a path between the pervy man next door (Aaron Eckhart, way out of his groove) and the old-world father (an awkward, Borat-accented Peter Macdissi) who is trying to beat his daughter into purity. Thirteen-year-old Jasira (Bishil) flies in from Buffalo to go live with her father, a Christian, Frenchified and strictly Old World Lebanese engineer at NASA in Houston. She leaves behind her self-involved mother (Maria Bello), who cares more for her latest boyfriend than she does for her daughter. The strife begins immediately. When Jasira comes to the table half-dressed, her dad slaps her brutally and then tells her, "I forgive you." As the first Gulf War starts to warm up, Jasira, the only Arab girl in a school full of white students, is heckled with the slur of the title. She gets a job baby sitting for the obnoxious little boy next door. The neighbor kid's father is an Army reservist, Mr. Vuoso (Eckhart). The dawning of sexuality hits Jasira like a ton of bricks. Her first orgasm and her first period arrive almost simultaneously. A covert relationship starts up between the older man and the younger girl. Jasira is willing, in the sense that there's no violence involved, and she doesn't know how wrong it all is. When Jasira starts dating a fellow student (Eugene Jones) who is black, her father forbids it. Now Jasira has two different secrets simultaneously.

Centuries of show business have proved that audiences can enjoy the sight of a pair of lovers sneaking off, without having to approve their breaking both the moral and the legal law. The scene of Vuoso and Jasira sneaking off for margaritas at a fancy Mexican restaurant is one moment where this movie is almost as sophisticated as it thinks it is. Directing this bald-faced drama, with its jumbo flapping American flags and smoggy skies, Ball isn't one to let viewers make their own moral judgments. And in the unappetizing scenes of Jasira and the narrow-minded, married Vuoso together, Eckhart semaphores to the camera: "I, Aaron Eckhart, want you to know that this character that I'm playing is completely distasteful. Maybe healing will come from all this." Bishil, who was then 18 but tiny for her age, suggests how Towelhead might have worked in the hands of a tougher-minded director: preferably a woman, who might have been braver about the ambiguities of this common, if still shocking, situation.

Movie Times TOWELHEAD (R; 124 min.), directed and written by Alan Ball, based on the novel by Alicia Erian, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Summer Bishil and Aaron Eckhart, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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