Dale Robinette, Twin Flags
Peter Macdissi and Summer Bishil star in "Towelhead." Bishil plays a racially mixed, Arab-American who is sent to stay with her father.

The outrageous — and deservedly controversial — title of "Towelhead" is much more daring and is probably more offensive than almost anything else that's shown in the actual movie.

What's worse than that, the film is pretty unfocused and rambling. Some good performances can't overcome those flaws or the film's sudden, jarring changes in the tone.

When it begins, the film seems almost punishingly heavy-handed and slow. Then gets all touchy-feely and somewhat treacly towards the end. It's unconvincing and seemed unearned.

The real surprise there is that this muddled, coming-of-age tale comes from Oscar-winning screenwriter ("American Beauty") and "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball.

Here he's adapting Alicia Erian's acclaimed but divisive novel, the title of which refers to a particularly insensitive racial slur that's used to describe the main character, Jasira Maroun.

Played by relative newcomer Summer Bishil, she's a racially mixed, Arab-American preteen who has been sent to stay with her father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi).

Rifat is a lot more restrictive than Jasira's mother, Gail (Maria Bello), who eventually gave her the boot. In particular, he frowns upon her Westernized attitudes and wardrobe.

He'd be even more horrified if he knew about Jasira's relationship with a classmate (Eugene Jones), as well as an even-more-inappropriate relationship with her new next door neighbor, a U.S. reservist named Thomas Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart).

Fortunately, screenwriter/director Ball doesn't go nearly as far in depicting that latter bit as we might have feared (especially given the explicit nature of some of his other works).

But it's clear that he wasn't sure how to get a handle on this tricky material. By the time it's done, we're really not sure exactly what he's really trying to say.

As for the performances, television actress Bishil is good as Jasira, and as expected, Eckhart is pitch-perfect as the somewhat racist reservist soldier. (Toni Collette shows up in support as a sympathetic neighbor.)

"Towelhead" is rated R for frank sexual language vulgarity, profanity and other suggestive talk), simulated sex and other sexual contact (including scenes depicting underage sex), racial slurs and other derogatory language, brief, partial female nudity and some brief implied violence. Running time: 124 minutes.


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