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Movie Mom

Alicia Erian’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young girl coming of age has been brought to the screen by writer/director Alan Ball, whose “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” explored the darker side of sunny suburban streets. This is the story of Jasira, the daughter of divorced parents, an American mother and a Christian Lebanese immigrant father. When Jasira begins to go through puberty, her mother’s live-in boyfriend responds inappropriately. Jasira’s mother packs her off to go live with her father in a sterile Houston suburb. Jasira has to cope with a range of reactions to her changing body from the bratty boy next door she babysits, who calls her ugly names, to his father (Aaron Eckhart), who treats her both as seductress and prey, her father, who seems horrified and angry but spends most of his time with his girlfriend, and a classmate who wants to be her boyfriend.

Summer Bishil gives a lovely, nuanced performance as Jasira, showing us that she is not just a passive victim but someone who is intrigued by the sense of power she feels from the effect her womanhood has on people. She is drawn to the photos in her neighbor’s Hustler magazine not because she is gay but because she sees in them a strength and freedom that intrigues her and makes her want to explore for herself. It is good to see a young girl in a movie who is allowed to be complicated and have complicated relationships. At least this film respects the power Jasira has as a person and a young woman. It also raises the cultural and racial clashes more thoughtfully than most films. There’s a nice moment when a confused staffer from Jasira’s Texas high school can’t understand why this brown-skinned girl does not speak Spanish. But It is very hard to watch at times, and there are moments when you can’t help wondering if the act of filming and watching is not itself exploitative or abusive.

As we expect from Alan Ball, the performances are breathtaking in their courage and sensitivity, especially Peter Macdissi as Jasira’s father and Aaron Eckhart as the neighbor, whose status as a reservist about to be called to the Gulf War lends an individual and societal element of being on the brink of chaos. In smaller roles, Maria Bello as the narcissistic mother, Lynn Collins as the father’s warm-hearted girlfriend, and Toni Collette as a concerned neighbor with some experience in crossing cultural borders create characters who feel completely real within the context of a story that tries and often succeeds in transcending its particulars for a story about the personal and political struggle to come of age.

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