Towelhead

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Toronto International Festival Film

TORONTO --  "Towelhead" (formerly "Nothing Is Private"), Alan Ball's feature directorial debut, packs a major wallop.

Alternately disturbing, laceratingly satirical and affectingly poignant, the film, which he adapted from the novel, "Towelhead," by Alicia Erian, is very much a companion piece to the Ball-penned "American Beauty" in its unwavering examination of the dirty little secrets and raging hypocrisies lurking just beyond all those manicured suburban lawns.

But when it comes to its squirm-inducing subject matter -- the sexual-awakening of a 13-year-old Arab-American girl -- the picture makes the provocative "Beauty" look like a comparative tea party.

Destined to emerge as one of the most talked-about titles of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was screened as a Special Presentation, the film was picked up this week for release sometime next year by Warner Independent Pictures and Netflix' Red Envelope.

In a head-turning breakthrough performance, 19-year-old Summer Bishil (who looks much younger) is the budding adolescent in question -- the only child of a Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi, from Ball's "Six Feet Under") and American mother (Maria Bello).

Set in the Operation Desert Storm-era '80s, the film opens with Bishil's Jasira being cast out of her divorced mother's Syracuse home after Mom's boyfriend cops to helping her shave her bikini area.

But it proves to be out of the frying pan and into the fire for Jasira when she's sent to live with her strict, pompous father, Rifat, in Houston and catches the lascivious eye of their next-door-neighbor, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart), a redneck Army reservist with a wife and a bratty kid.

He's not the only male drawn to Jasira like a moth to a flame. So is Thomas, an African-American schoolmate who also proves to be a whiz with a disposable razor.

While her prejudiced father doesn't approve of the relationship, Jasira's hormones get the best of her.

Taking a more motherly interest in her welfare, meanwhile, is Toni Collette as a pregnant neighbor who's on to Vuoso's ulterior motives for having Jasira babysit his son.

As the title would suggest, everyone on this cul-de-sac is getting in everyone else's business, and Ball orchestrates all the goings-on with a seasoned agility that belies his feature directorial debut -- although he did receive a directing Emmy in 2002 for his work on "Six Feet Under."

In a broader context, by setting the film at the time of America's first Iraq invasion with TV news coverage constantly blaring in the background, Ball is able to make some telling observations about how little things have changed -- both politically and socially, over the past two decades.

He also coaxes bold, fearless performances from his cast, especially young Bishil, who remarkably conveys her character's onslaught of mixed emotions.

Over on the satirical front, Macdissi comes dangerously close to stealing the whole show as Jasira's arrogantly self-righteous father. He's a wholly original creation, with maybe a tiny bit of Borat thrown in for good measure.

Behind-the-scenes, Newton Thomas Sigel's camera captures every troublesome nuance; while composer Thomas Newman, who also contributed that oft-imitated "American Beauty" score, has come up with an appropriate variation on those previous themes.

TOWELHEAD
Warner Independent Pictures/Red Envelope
This is That/Indian Paintbrush
Credits: Director-writer: Alan Ball
Based on the novel, "Towelhead" by Alicia Erian
Producers: Ted Hope, Steven Rales, Alan Ball
Executive producers: Anne Carey, Scott Rudin, Peggy Rajski
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: James Chinlund
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Andy Keir
Cast:
Mr. Vuoso: Aaron Eckhart
Melina: Toni Collette
Gail: Maria Bello
Rifat: Peter Macdissi
Jasira: Summer Bishil
Thomas: Eugene Jones
Running time -- 124 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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