Dir: Alan Ball. US. 2007. 124 mins.
Perhaps the most polarizing film of the Toronto International Film Festival this week, Nothing Is Private marks the feature directorial debut of American Beauty writer and Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball. As you might expect from Ball's oeuvre to date, it is a provocative piece scratching at the ugliness underneath the placid surface of American suburbia with his customary spiky humour and not a little misanthropy.

Most invigorating of all is that the film arrives at a time when independent US cinema is over-run with rosy, Little-Miss-Sunshine-views of the world, Ball takes an unflinching look at taboo subjects like racism, child rape and teenage sexuality with a desire to make you uncomfortable that recalls the glory days of Todd Solondz, Larry Clark or Neil Labute. Like those directors, he has a bold voice, a way of illustrating humanity as he sees it, which will repel as many viewers as it fascinates.

Warner Independent Pictures bought domestic rights to the film in tandem with Netflix division Red Envelope Entertainment, and has already received an 'R' rating in the US. Like Happiness or Kids before it, it won't make much of an impression at the box office, and critics will be as divided as were Toronto audiences. However, it will certainly be talked about, and will become a cult item among loyal Six Feet Under fans and more open-minded filmgoers.

Internationally, it could gain fans as an arthouse picture, especially since so few US films these days dare to take such risks.

Based on Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead, the film is a coming-of-age story set in 1990. Saddam Hussein has just invaded Kuwait and George Bush Sr is talking of war when 13 year-old Jasira (Bishil) shaves off her pubic hair with the inappropriate assistance of her mother's boyfriend. Her self-absorbed mother (Bello) is furious and packs her off to the suburbs of Houston Texas to live with her stern and hypocritical Lebanese father Rifat (Macdissi).

Jasira suffers in her new environment. She is teased by schoolmates and by the 10 year-old boy she babysits next door for being a 'towelhead', is lonely and hopelessly confused about her sexuality, a fact not helped by her father's old-fashioned ideas and strict, repressive tendencies.

But as her sexual longings and desire begin to overwhelm her, she begins to flirt with dangerous situations. She finds herself attracted to the handsome army reservist next door Mr Vuoso (Eckhart) and gets aroused when she looks at his porno magazine collection. He responds to her innocent sallies with an aggressive sexual assault, breaking her hymen with his fingers.

Meanwhile she attracts the attentions of a schoolmate Thomas (Eugene Jones) whom her father forbids her to see because he is black. She soon starts having sex with him.

As Vuoso and Thomas vie for her body and her father becomes more suspicious and more violent in his punishment of her, Jasira seeks the friendship of a concerned neighbour (Collette) and begins to realise that she has more power than she previously believed.

The film is tonally inconsistent, veering from blunt, broad comedy to ugly scenes of sexual violence. It is kept on track, however, by a courageous central performance from Bishil, who was 18 when the film was shot. She manages make Jasira authentically naïve and innocent, while at the same time the girl engages in startling acts of sexual provocation. This contradiction takes the film into moral grey areas which American audiences will find hard to bear.

Ball also lacks discipline in this long final cut. Several sequences feel superfluous to the central story - a visit from Bello 's under-drawn mother character, Jasira's modelling fantasies, the death of the Vuoso cat - and he is prone to caricature (Bello, Carrie Preston as Mrs Vuoso, the viciously racist kids at the local high school). Eckhart on the other hand is chillingly plausible as the man who crosses the line, while Macdissi as the Saddam-hating Lebanese American with no discernible parenting skills achieves a nice balance between banal stupidity and dictatorial menace.

Ball enlists his regular composer Thomas Newman to contribute an irritatingly tinkly score which sounds like a blend of the Six Feet Under theme with the American Beauty music.

Alan Ball

Production companies
This is that (US)
Scott Rudin Productions (US)

US distribution
Warner Independent Pictures (US)
Red Envelope Entertainment (US)

International sales
Celluloid Dreams (Fr)

Executive producers
Anne Carey
Peggy Rajski
Scott Rudin

Alan Ball
Ted Hope
Steven M Rales

Alan Ball
based on the novel Towelhead by Alicia Erian

Director of photography
Newton Thomas Siegel

Production designer
James Chinlund

Andy Kier

Thomas Newman

Main cast
Summer Bishil
Peter Macdissi
Aaron Eckhart
Eugene Jones
Maria Bello
Toni Collette