Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Venezuelan head trip: Mariana Rondón's disturbing BAD HAIR opens at Film Forum

It's being sold as a "touching, charming, humorous" movie, and while BAD HAIR (Pelo Malo) -- the new Venezuelan film from writer/director Mariana Rondón -- at times exhibits all three of these adjectives, it is much more of an unsettling and disturbing experience than anything in the feel-good realm. It is also very believable and rich in the specifics of a Latin American culture we haven't seen much on film. The movie certainly does not seem like most of the Mexican, Argentine or Brazilian films we're viewed so far, and its story (of a barely-working-class mother of two, the elder child of which appears, even at age nine and much to his mother's consternation, to be a budding homosexual) is anything but the stuff of cutesy, feel-good fantasy.

Ms Rondón, shown near right (with her producer and very fine film editor, Marité Ugas), has given us a movie that is a near-constant and often hurtful, vicious tug-of-war between mother, Marta (Samantha Castilllo, below, right), and son, known simply as Junior (Samuel Lange, on poster above, and below, left), and the very-near incredible performan-ces she's wrenched from these two alone make the movie worth seeing. The family's life in the Caracas projects is captured with alternating sorrow and humor, as is the only other character of real importance to the film: the son's grandmother, who does not mind -- even seems to encourage -- the "gay" direction in which he is headed and keeps making noises about adopting him from mom, in return for which she'll give Marta some much needed money.

The assorted supporting characters -- from the good-looking fellow who runs a sundries stand nearby (and on whom Junior has a crush) to his classmate, whose mom does babysitting (when she's able to be paid, that is) -- help make the movie interesting and fast-paced, but the bulk of the plot and its tension is between mother and son.

The attitudes here, mom's to that of the physician she consults on behalf of her son, may be backward and a bit shocking, yet they do not seem anything but real and part of this particular Latino culture of poverty and lack of education that simply must be dealt with in some fashion. And though mom has all the power and may be abusing it, Junior often manages to give as good he gets. From mom's standpoint, after all, she is saving her sonny boy from a fate worse than death.

Gay viewers and their close friends will watch in horror, as Junior is forced into making choices that go against everything he feels and cares for (except his mom, whom he loves above all). And mom herself cannot be seen as a villain, even though she makes all the wrong choices for her son. The scene in which she coerces him to watch her copulating with the man who may give her back the job she so desperately needs (clearly in hopes that something heterosexual will rub off on the kid) is only one of the god-awful things that Marta does.

The major mother/son struggle involves Junior's hair, beautiful and curly, which he hates and wants to straighten out (his grandmother -- Nelly Ramos, below, right -- has managed to make about half of it that way in the scene above). Most viewers will agree that Junior is gorgeous with his own curly hair, and that his self-image could use some improvement. In the film's finale, that hair comes at last into its own, though perhaps not in quite the way we or Junior might expect.

So, sure, there is some humor and charm here, along the way. But Bad Hair did not win its many festival awards by being just another cute early-coming-of-age movie with a gay theme. Marketing may decree that the film be pitched as something lighter than it is, but I can't believe that Ms Rondón does not see her movie as a serious, as well as entertaining, look at a backward cultural practice. It's a memorable look, too. In  the history of cinema, you're unlikely to find many child performances as deep and desperate as that of young Master Lange's.

The movie, from Cinema Tropical and FIGa Films, opens this Wednes-day in New York City at Film Forum. Elsewhere? Yes: The film opens Dec. 5 in Miami, Chicago, and Boston; Dec. 10 in Santa Barbara; Dec. 12 in Houston. It will hit Vancouver in January. Maybe, once word-of-mouth begins, the film will garner even more openings around the country. 


Alex Garcia said...

The film opens Dec. 5 in Miami, Chicago, and Boston. Dec. 10 in Santa Barbara, Dec. 12 in Houston. Vancouver in Jan.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Alex! I'll see that this gets posted into the piece itself.