The long-awaited directorial debut of Alan Ball does not disappoint. Nothing is Private, based on the Alicia Erian novel, Towelhead, is an alternately moving and bitingly funny portrait of a Lebanese-American father and daughter who are lost at sea when it comes to understanding the country they live in, but no more so than their neighbors. Fans of the television show Six Feet Under will instantly recognize Peter Macdissi, the actor playing Rifat, the father, as the unscrupulous art teacher Olivier who was forever giving terrible advice to Lauren Ambrose's character on that show.
Here he affects the same kind of aggressively clueless persona, but with a stronger tinge of seriousness. Rifat, while educated and Americanized, is also a fierce traditionalist who slaps his daughter to the ground for wearing skimpy clothes, and then tries to recover by telling her "I forgive you." Summer Bishil plays 13 year-old Jasira, who is tormented at school by boys who call her 'towelhead.' One of those boys follows up that insult by promptly walking back up to Jasira and telling her 'You shouldn't let people call you that.'
Living directly next door to Rifat and Jasira is Mr. Vuoso, a typical Texas suburbanite with a Stepford wife and a bratty pre-teen son who is bouncing off the walls and who is soon put under the care of a new babysitter, Jasira. Since this is an Alan Ball film we're talking about, it shouldn't come as a shock to you when Vuoso begins to lust after the young girl and starts to show up at her door whenever her father isn't around. No one does creepy male behavior better than Aaron Eckhart, and some of his scenes opposite Bishil are downright disturbing. In fact, one of the most frequently asked questions about Nothing is Private at TIFF was: who will actually distribute this movie? In its present form, the film could very easily garner an NC-17, since much of it revolves around a pedophile's obsession and an underage girl's active sex life. There are even fantasy sequences of the young girl dancing and frolicking with nude Playboy bunnies to depict her budding lesbianism. In other words, not for kids.
There are two big names in the supporting cast, with Maria Bello playing Rifat's ex-wife and Jasira's mother who now lives far away, and Toni Collette as a nosy neighbor who is able to accurately intuit most of what's going on in her neighborhood. She knows that Vuoso is not the All-American guy he seems, but a dangerous creep. She also senses, correctly, the parental abuse that's going on in Jasira's household. It's when all of these worlds start to collide in the latter portion of the film that we really get into blast-off mode. After Rifat bruises up Jasira to the point that Collette's character has proof of abuse, she allows Jasira to take refuge in her home and tells Rifat that if he doesn't like that, they can all go to the police. Ball has spent the first hour or so setting up Rifat as an intensely proud, independent man and then pulls that rug out from under him completely: he's now utterly dependent on the good will of the kind of Texas rubes he so despises.
Ball shows a real facility for mixing comedy and drama here, and also for delivering some keen insights about race and religion that risk offending in order to make a point. He's also able to use race to elicit big laughs, which is even trickier. Case in point: one of the film's biggest jokes comes when, after Rifat has forbidden Jasira from seeing an African-American boy that she likes because he fears it will shame her in society, Jasira asks if she can bring a female friend over for a sleepover. Before Rifat can answer, Jasira helpfully adds that the friend is white. "It doesn't matter what color she is if she's a girl," Rifat says, annoyed at the implication. "Don't make me out to be some kind of racist." Nothing is Private has the biting humor of American Beauty, and exhibits that same quality of the sheer bone-weariness of being an American, but skirts the ponderous, life and death stakes of that film in favor of a fast-moving, ground-level story, and the result is a success.