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In suburbia, a world of woes

September 03, 2008|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ

IT'S STRANGE to hear Summer Bishil speak in a 13-year-old's voice -- high-pitched, tentative, as if determined to render herself a cipher.

Bishil is actually 20, and was 18 when she starred as the lead Jasira in "Towelhead," the provocative new film from "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball. But she used the eerily accurate adolescent voice for this tale of a 13-year-old Lebanese American girl's coming of age in a Houston subdivision during the first Iraq war. "Towelhead," which opens next week, explores Jasira's burgeoning sexuality and the fear it instills in her Lebanese single father who wishes she'd remain 9, and the desire it stirs in Jasira's next-door neighbor, a 35-year-old Army reservist played by Aaron Eckhart. To some, the film -- with its comic-horrific tone -- will be shocking, but to Bishil it was a relief to find a part that not only suited her ethnically but actually resonated with her.

"It was like, finally, I'm reading something that holds a lot of truth in it, and means something. I was so relieved," she says, speaking in her regular voice, which is about an octave lower. "I was really attached to [Jasira]. It wasn't so much that I had gone through what she had gone through because I never did, but I understand her quest for understanding of herself and the people around her. And not having full control over her life. Over her body. Over her decisions. And not knowing what it means to own them."

In the film, Jasira is shy and mostly embarrassed about her body. She slouches and galumphs, with the awkwardness of an adolescent girl wearing sanitary pads. (That's a plot point in the film, and as Bishil says, "I picked a wedgie in every take of that scene on the supermarket aisle.")

Bishil, though, is a beautiful, uncommonly self-possessed young woman, who last week was meticulously eating her spaghetti ordered from the kid's menu at the Four Seasons, dressed in a completely borrowed designer cocktail dress and borrowed Jimmy Choo shoes.

Bishil plays Jasira not as a budding Lolita, but as an inquisitive naif. "Just because she's provocative doesn't mean she's not innocent," Ball says. "Just because a child is sexually curious or is looking for pleasure or a sense of power in her existence doesn't mean they're not innocent. [Summer] really got that. I didn't ever want [Jasira] to seem like she was being manipulative. It's a much purer response. Summer is such a pure person, and I think it really translates to the camera."

Clearly, the theme of adults being sexually attracted to adolescents is one that circled through Ball's Oscar-winning screenplay "American Beauty." Ball points out that "I had a thing happen to me as a child. It's something that has resonance for me and it's something that happens to a lot of people. The statistics are 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men" experience this type of violation. For something to be that prevalent in society and for us to have such an aversion to looking at it and the reason why it happens. . . ."

Still, Ball had to raise money privately to make "Towelhead" because, despite his talent and pedigree, every studio passed. "The kind of response we heard is, 'We love the script but we have no idea how to market this' and 'I can't possibly make this movie. I have daughters,' " Ball says.

After the film's completion, Warner Independent ultimately picked it up earlier this year when it was titled "Nothing Is Private." Ball later went with "Towelhead," the title of the Alicia Erian novel on which the film is based. The filmmakers screened the film for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in November, Ball says, and no one complained about its content, but more recently, the Greater Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked Warner Bros. to change the film's title, which is considered a racial slur.

The studio has declined. "I understand that it's a painful word to hear," Ball says. "I understand it's shocking to the senses. That's the point. That's why Alicia chose to call the book that." It's like when the gay movement reclaimed the word "queer" from its pejorative meaning, he says. "I do believe that you disempower those words by saying them out loud in a context in which you can look at them for what they are. It's hate language. To say you can't say this word ever makes it so powerful and helps maintain the illusion that we've moved beyond the racism such language represents. We all know that's not true."

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