Director Alan Ball spends the duration of Towelhead trying to shock his audience into believing that what they're watching is "raw," "bold," and above all, "real." Thus the film's opening scene: 13-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) in her underwear, shaving cream on her upper thighs, as her mother's boyfriend helps her shave her bikini line. When Jasira's mother finds out about the BF's little indiscretion, Jasira is shipped off to Texas to live with her strict Lebanese father. Cue more "realness": Her father insists that Jasira use pads instead of Tampax, but when the toilet clogs, he finds in it a bloody, waterlogged tampon, a dripping symbol of both the girl's defiance and of the film's tendency to shorthand complicated moments into simple, shocking unpleasantness.

Jasira gets a job babysitting for the neighbors, a cocky Army reservist, Travis (Aaron Eckhart), and his brittle, insincere wife. Jasira discovers Travis' stash of porno mags, figures out that when she crosses her legs a certain way she gets a good feeling "down there," and with her freshly awakened sexuality oozing all over the place, she develops a schoolgirl crush on Travis. (In a scene that's the apex of yuckiness masquerading as "realness," Travis fingerfucks the resistant girl, leaving him with literal blood on his hands.)

The reason I'm giving Ball absolutely no credit for his frank depiction of uncomfortable moments is that while Jasira serves as a foil for the film's observations about sex and race, as a character she's unfocused, underdeveloped, and lacking the barest suggestion of an inner life. It's an unforgivable misstep when dealing with subject matter this charged—as though all we need to know is about Jasira is that she's a girl, she's pretty, and she's got dark skin. Combine this with the camera's tendency to drool all over the scantily clad actress, and you're left with a film that's as exploitative as the character it purports to condemn.