There Goes the Neighborhood 

Towelhead scalds screens with vivid social problems. Lakeview Terrace merely reheats the insane-cop plot.

Towelhead isn't a movie, it's a loaded gun. From its very first scene, in which the stepfather of the main character, thirteen-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil), is shown helping the reluctant girl shave her pubic hair, we're hit with disturbing situations and images most mainstream American movies would never touch. The hits just keep on coming — child molestation, teen sexuality, pornography, rape, anti-Arab prejudice, racism, intolerance in general, abusive parents, the soullessness of the suburbs, and the old reliable, adultery.

It's as if filmmaker Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, were piling on the outrages for exaggerated effect, trying to outdo a slasher pic like Hostel or an arty provocation like Funny Games. Jasira's life is a living hell, yet there's nothing especially mysterious or unknowable about it. All the troubles depicted in the film are on the surface, but what a surface. Towelhead — the title is one of the racist names hurled at Jasira by her classmates — starts out as more or less a straight social problem film with something to offend everyone, a sure-fire discussion starter.

The time period is the start of the current Iraq war, in 2003, a bad time to be Middle Eastern in the US. Jasira is the daughter of divorced parents. After the "shaving" incident, her selfish, jealous mother Gail (darkly portrayed by Maria Bello) sends the girl to live with her estranged father, an intense Lebanese Christian immigrant named Rifat (Peter Macdissi), in the suburbs of Houston. The mustachioed Rifat is an unfortunate caricature of the vexatious Arab, a Saddam Hussein look-alike with "old-country" notions of how to raise a daughter: corporal punishment, etc. As the daughter of an outsider who would still come across pissed off even if he weren't so manifestly "other," poor Jasira is not spared any disgrace at school or at home. Her life grows increasingly Dickensian.

While all this external heat is being applied to Jasira, she is in the midst of her own personal discovery of sexuality, which mostly takes the form of looking at skin mags with the neighbor's boy, secretly masturbating, and quarreling with her stern father over the issue of tampons (he's against them). Her sexual awakening also, alarmingly, includes the attention paid to her by the neighbor kid's father, Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). As their unhealthy relationship becomes more apparent it draws the attention of another family in the neighborhood, Melina (Toni Collette) and her husband Gil (Matt Letscher), a pair of former Peace Corps volunteers who offer Jasira a safe place to escape from her predicament. Everyone knows how she should lead her life.

Meanwhile Jasira finds a new friend, and an outlet for her feelings, in Thomas (Eugene Jones), an African-American student her own age — a development that outrages her father ("You are not to see that boy again"). Situations ordinarily played for laughs in Hollywood youth-market comedies are potentially deadly serious here because of Jasira's age and ethnicity. But something happens as we walk in Jasira's shoes. This willful youngster, who doesn't need a life coach, only a friend or two, demands the right to her own destiny — it's already happening in spite of myriad distractions. Director Ball, who adapted the screenplay from Alicia Eran's novel, takes care to retain Eran's spontaneous, often quite funny tone, even in the most stressful scenes. For that reason as well as the fearless characterizations, Towelhead is one the most intelligent films of the year. By the time we rise above Jasira's hectic environment and poke our heads out of the clouds, she's there, waiting for us.

Acting honors all around, especially to Summer Bishil in her film debut, the trickiest role in a touchy film; and frequent TV actor Macdissi (Six Feet Under, directed by Ball) as Rifat, the heavy of the piece, a man aware of his shortcomings yet unable to outgrow them. Eckhart's slimy Mr. Vuoso and Collette's solicitous do-gooder Melina fit neatly into the respective actor's body of work without making a ripple — pitch-perfect casting. All praise to filmmaker Ball for taking a social potboiler and creating a soufflé of teenage tenderness. In outline, Towelhead is the sort of film that could have been directed by D.W. Griffith. So stark, so naked. But it magically transforms itself into a rare tale of innocence triumphant.

Lakeview Terrace, the story of a violently racist police officer in a similar suburban setting, isn't quite as obviously shocking as Towelhead, but not because it doesn't try to be. It pushes some of the same buttons in slightly different ways.

A few years ago, when In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors were scalding screens with their devastating assault on American manners, it would have been Neil LaBute who would have directed Towelhead. Now he has to be content with an insane-cop melodrama along the lines of Internal Affairs or Unlawful Entry, with a dash of Straw Dogs thrown in.

LAPD officer and lonely recent widower Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson, his face hardened into a thousand-yard glare) takes umbrage when a black-white mixed couple, Lisa and Chris Mattson (Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson) move in next door to his San Fernando Valley hillside rambling rancheroo. Wigger Chris is the type of guy who blasts hip-hop in his car (Abel hates hip-hop) and guiltily flips cigarette butts onto Abel's lawn (his wife is trying to make him quit smoking), but that's no reason to hire a gang-banger to trash his house or to try to kill the dude. As for Lisa, she makes a bid to become a maternal figure to Abel's young daughter and son, left motherless after she was killed by a drunk driver. Lisa's only crime is marrying whitey. Their crime as a couple seems to be "being civilian within a fifty-yard radius of a policeman's home." Abel starts in on them almost immediately, then ramps up the hostility by degrees until the whole neighborhood bursts into flames.

There was a time writer-director LaBute might have delighted in such a pulpy story, but Lakeview Terrace, aside from Jackson's mechanically maniacal performance and the nervous smirking of Wilson (he has that Cliff De Young untrustworthiness in his eyes), isn't much fun either as social commentary or procedural guignol. The gormless screenplay was written by David Loughery (Tom and Huck) and Howard Korder (Stealing Sinatra), a pair of hacks LaBute wouldn't have given the time of day to when he and Aaron Eckhart (see above) were setting the standard for blistering urban dramatics. That day seems to have passed.

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