Director stirs controversy with 'Towelhead'

Alan Ball, discussing the clamor over “Towelhead,” his feature-length directorial debut, says, “It upsets people that although she is victimized, Jasira is not a victim.”

As the screenwriter of the Oscar-winning “American Beauty” and creator of the Emmy-studded “Six Feet Under,” Ball is not unfamiliar with controversy, but admits to some surprise this time around.

“People want to reduce things to black or white,” he says.

Hewing closely to Alicia Eran’s novel of the same name, “Towelhead,” which opens Friday in San Francisco, depicts the struggle of 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) to come to terms with her nascent sexuality as she is transplanted from her American mother’s home in upstate New York to her Lebanese father’s care in the Houston suburbs.

Her struggle is complicated by various factors: racism, psychological battering from her viciously and dangerously immature parents — her father’s idea of an apology for hitting her is “I forgive you” — and sexual abuse by someone she desires, all set against the backdrop of the 1990-91 Gulf War.

“My experience with Sam Mendes [director of “American Beauty”] was so perfect that I knew I’d never have that again,” Ball says of his decision to helm “Towelhead.” “I knew I had to make the film because the book brought out so many emotions in me, and I knew I needed to direct this one because it’s a very specific tone that has to be caught.”

True to his distaste for simplistic answers, the scene Ball most regrets having to cut was one rounding out the character of the film’s most obvious villain, a scene in which Jasira’s sexual abuser prevents her father from beating her.

Similarly, although Jasira is fascinated by a stash of Playboy magazines — because “in her eyes, the women are in the position of power” — Ball also carefully offers a counterpoint through Jasira’s feminist neighbor (Toni Collette), who points out that such airbrushed pictures make real women dissatisfied with their bodies.

Given that Jasira’s pain and conflict over the abuse are shown clearly and sympathetically, that Ball is openly gay, and that Bishil was 18 when the film was shot, claims that the movie is exploitative seem inaccurate at best.

“At the time we were filming, there was a city-bus ad campaign — the whole side of every bus showed an explicit ad for ‘Girls Gone Wild’ all over L.A.,” Ball points out. “Where’s the outrage over that?”

If you go

Towelhead

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Maria Bello and Summer Bishil
Written and directed by Alan Ball
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes

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