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If he gets it right, you'll squirm

With the film 'Towelhead,' Alan Ball once again traipses into socially and sexually complex issues.

September 14, 2008|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

It's A big month for Alan Ball. The Oscar-winning writer of "American Beauty" and creator of "Six Feet Under" is enjoying the recent premiere of a new series, "True Blood," on HBO. And "Towelhead," his feature film directorial debut, hit theaters on Friday.

On the surface, the two projects couldn't be more different. Based on the 2005 novel by Alicia Erian, "Towelhead" is the story of an Arab American girl's sexual coming-of-age in the bland subdivisions of Houston. The film features a thoroughbred cast -- Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Toni Collette, Peter Macdissi, plus newcomer Summer Bishil, 20, as 13-year-old Jasira -- and is suffused with Ball's postmodern-gothic sensibility, alternately creepy and revelatory, with a frisky dose of politics thrown in (the film takes place during the first Gulf War).

"True Blood," by contrast, is about vampires in Louisiana and the mortals who are both repelled and fascinated by them, now that the princes and princesses of the night have come out of the coffin and walk among the living, thanks to the invention of a Japanese synthetic-blood beverage, sold in six-packs. As it turns out, there are good vampires and bad vampires. Actress Anna Paquin is stuck in the middle, as Sookie Stackhouse, a psychic heroine retained from Charlaine Harris' "Southern Vampire Mysteries" books, the source material for the show.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
"Towelhead": An article in Sunday's Calendar section about Alan Ball's new film, "Towelhead," said the movie was originally titled "Nothing Is Hidden" at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. The title was "Nothing Is Private."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 21, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
"Towelhead": An article last Sunday about Alan Ball's new film, "Towelhead," said the movie was originally titled "Nothing Is Hidden" at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. The title was "Nothing Is Private."

In both projects, there's darkness and light -- but Ball delights in spending most of his time in the delectable gray zone that lurks between.

Earlier this summer, back when both projects were just beginning to register on the pop-culture radar, Ball, 51, was tipping back a cup of Starbucks in his office on the old Warner Hollywood lot in West Hollywood, looking trim and fit, discussing his unique sensibility and the career it has allowed him to shape.

A true veteran of epatering the staid American bourgeoisie, he said he wasn't surprised that "Towelhead" -- originally titled "Nothing Is Hidden" when it first screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007 -- has invited flustered criticism from the political right (and mixed reviews from critics). Fox News columnist Roger Friedman likened it to "kiddie porn" and called it the "worst and most offensive movie I've seen in a while."

Such notices stand in stark contrast to the generally glowing reception "American Beauty" received. The Times' Kenneth Turan, for example, called Ball's stratospheric entree to the movie business back in 1999 a "blood-chilling dark comedy with unexpected moments of both fury and warmth, a strange, brooding and very accomplished film that sets us back on our heels from its opening frames."

"It's a very emotional topic," Ball said of the sexually charged material in "Towelhead." The movie includes scenes of Jasira having her pubic hair shaved by her mother's boyfriend, being entreated for sex by a classmate she's dating and becoming intrigued by the come-ons of Eckhart's character, a libidinally frustrated, married Army reservist living next door to Jasira and her stern but narcissistic Lebanese father (Macdissi).

A tale of human development

This ALL may sound somewhat exploitative, but Erian's goal in her novel, which Ball adapted for the screen, was to create a narrative in which a variety of tense and painful issues, from Arab identity to the commonplace yet confusing development of female sexuality and sexual power, could be examined -- and often, simply crashed into each other -- in an unflinching, unsentimental manner.

"What I loved in the book was that Alicia refused to judge her characters," Ball said, espousing what for him might almost be considered an aesthetic motto.

"Judge not" is the ethos that has defined Ball's art since he burst onto the scene in the late 1990s. It has continued to define his work, especially "Six Feet Under," in which his constantly anguished characters forever triangulated relationships with the only judgment that ultimately matters, death.

In "Towelhead," Ball translates this reluctance to judge from print to film, presenting an almost unrelenting stream of awkward, confrontational, painful, unsavory, predatory and at times despicable -- if not actually illegal -- events from a distanced and analytical perspective that allows viewers to both feel the struggle of individual characters and to make up their own minds about the moral elements of the story.

Given that Bishil, playing a minor, is in effect raped by Eckhart in an extremely difficult scene, this avoidance of quick ethical verdicts has laid Ball wide open for attack. "Aaron said, 'I don't want to play a pedophile,' when we were developing the role," Ball explained. "And I said, 'I don't think this guy is a pedophile.' "

Bishil pointed out that her first-time director, in addition to making sure that his incendiary dramatic material was properly supervised on set, was painstaking in preparing her for the challenging exchanges with Eckhart.

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