Bad Hair (★★★)

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Tribeca Film Festival: Part critique on the media’s selective projection of beauty and part coming-of-age story from the perspective of a homosexual youth, Bad Hair elegiacally chronicles the struggle to want to belong and develop into one’s self, when faced with hostile and social barriers.

Junior, played by Samuel Lange Zambrano, is a 9-year-old Venezuelan boy who obsesses over straightening his curly hair. He spends his days in his proletariat compound, aspiring to have straight hair for a school photo. His obstacles come in the form of economic limitations and a homophobic mother (Samantha Castillo) who can neither afford to pay for his school photos nor allow her eldest son to effeminate his appearance.

Director Mariana Rondon’s third feature film is a heartbreaking illustration of the inauspicious social climates that suffocate development of one’s self-identity. She allows her protagonist’s hair problems to denote both his intrinsic struggle with his sexuality and be a product of targeted commercialism. Junior wants to change his hair, he rejects its naturalism, in search of an externalization of how he thinks he should look. However, Rondon offers audiences a rare, raw look into the psyche of her young character, when she shows us the negative influences in Junior’s life. Junior’s critical mother abhors her son’s becomings and goes to, often, cruel measures to yield it. She eventually offers her son an ultimatum that forces him to decide the kind of life and environment he wants to grow up in.

Junior is also enamored with and influenced by the ideologies of good hair portrayed in the media – the Miss America pageants he watches on TV, the Barbie dolls his female friend plays with, etc. He doesn’t yet understand how different he is from other boys, but his mother’s invective quickly makes a disturbing psychological impact on him. This film is as much about self-exploration as it is about negative conformity.

In Rondon’s stark and bleak portrait of poverty and Venezuelan slums, her two main actors shine like gold. With truly remarkable performances from Zambrano and Castillo, it’s almost hard to believe this is their first film. Castillo, who draws eerie parallels to Kim Wayans’ character in 2011s Pariah, is just superb; You love her performance just as much as you hate her character. She completely embodies the intolerance and austerity of a mother who neither understands who or what her son is, nor wants to, with what seems like an effortless approach.

Zambrano plays his part just as effortlessly. He’s able to showcase all the complexities of what his character is going through and, at the same time, elicit all the idiosyncrasies of being that young and innocent.

Bad Hair demonstrates the hurdles of growing up and wanting to be different, but, more importantly, it demonstrates the painful reality of being forced to fit into a societal mold. With amazing performances and a great story, this is a breathtakingly raw, beautiful and sad film.

  • This reads like a review for a four-star movie. What keeps it from a perfect score in your eyes?

    • Cristina Lule

      Robert, I’m gonna tell you a little something about me: I never give a perfect score. I also had to consider if this was a film I was going to remember a year from now. Maybe in a few weeks I’ll regret not giving it a 3 1/2.