Alan Ball's feature directorial debut, "Towelhead," is a disturbing slice of suburban American pie, but its tension comes more from what you anticipate happening than from what actually does. This is good news-bad news since, while the film avoids much of its offbeat story's stomach-knotting potential for human wreckage, it can ultimately feel less consequential than "American Beauty," Ball's career-catapulting creation to which it bears more than just a passing resemblance.
The new film's similarity to that Oscar winner -- as well as to his envelope-pushing "Six Feet Under" show -- makes "Towelhead," which Ball also adapted from Alicia Erian's novel, seem like both an inevitable and irresistible match for the writer-director. Why, then, isn't this luridly involving picture, set against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, more fully satisfying?
In presenting this multi-themed tale of a young girl's percolating sexuality and the firestorm it sets off, Ball struggles to find a precise or convincing tone. As a result, the actors, committed as they all are, often appear to be operating in their own individual universes rather than as part of a cohesive whole. To be fair, juggling the story's pitch-dark humor, emotional land mines, sociopolitical checklist and biological bluntness would be a tough act for even the most seasoned filmmaker.
On the upside, newcomer Summer Bishil turns in a gutsy, quietly riveting performance as Jasira, a ripening 13-year-old sent to Houston to live with her pompous Lebanese American father (Peter Macdissi) by her divorced, shamelessly self-involved American mother (Maria Bello) after a discomforting anatomical "grooming" incident between Jasira and the mother's sleazy boyfriend. The beautiful Bishil, who was, thankfully, 18 when she shot this deeply sexual film, authentically straddles that fine line between wide-eyed adolescent and she's-gotta-have-it Lolita.
Also strong are Aaron Eckhart as Jasira's handsome, profoundly troubled Army reservist neighbor, a pedophile hiding behind the American flag; Toni Collette as another neighbor who becomes a protective mother figure to the vulnerable Jasira; and Eugene Jones as a politely horny African American classmate who stirs Jasira's lust -- and her father's wrath. The always-watchable Bello does her best with a thankless and underdeveloped part.
Macdissi, however, never gets a handle on his erratic, ill-conceived role as an immigrant with some wildly contradictory notions about assimilation. Ricocheting among fey, arch, cruel and unctuous, he comes off like "Beauty's" Kevin Spacey without a compass. Like the film itself, he's rarely dull, just somewhat misguided.
"Towelhead." MPAA rating: R for strong, disturbing sexual content and abuse involving a young teen, and for language. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. At the Arclight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 281-8233.