Towelhead 

Directed by Alan Ball

In indie American cinema's recent tradition of quirky, vacuous back-patting, Towelhead elevates the status quo semi-successfully. Many of its failures and successes follow from writer-director Alan Ball's Six Feet Under. That series, about a family-run funeral home, delved expertly into bodies and middle-class psychosis, rarely addressing its L.A. setting's economic and racial rifts. Similarly, Towelhead–Ball's feature debut, adapted from Alicia Erian's novel–mobilizes more issues than it can tackle intelligently.

During Gulf War I, adolescent Jasira (Summer Bishil) and her Lebanese-American father (Peter Macdissi) butt heads, reacting to their Houston cul-de-sac's suburban seediness. Imagine the Ball-scripted American Beauty blended with Paul Haggis's Crash. Like the latter, Towelhead's engagement with racism never transcends one-dimensional tokenism (economic inequality, meanwhile, seems non-existent in cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel's magical realist suburban wonderland). Adults are caricatures here, social ills boiled down to knee-jerk behaviors. This puts Towelhead's smart, horny teens front and center, and they're its greatest success. Jasira's sexual initiations, especially, provide an unflinching portrayal of childhood sexuality sadly absent from contemporary cinema. If it takes feigning topical interest in race relations for Towelhead to address a more taboo topic with greater intelligence, the result is worthwhile despite the film's shortcomings.

Opens September 12

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