Monday, September 9, 2013

TIFF 2013: Bad Hair

Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) (Venezuela, 2013) directed by Mariana Rondón, 93 minutes, Scotiabank 13, 11a

Junior (Samuel Lange) is a soulful eyed, nine year-old Venezuelan boy with an increasing obsession to straighten his curly hair. He wants to sing, to wear new clothes for his upcoming school picture, to express himself. He also has an enormous crush on Mario, the handsome street vendor who works near his home.

Junior is wrestling with a gay identity with no idea yet of what being gay is.

Junior is mixed race - his father is black and recently deceased. His Hispanic mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) is a sometime well-meaning but exhausted mother of two who has trouble keeping employed as a security guard. It is implied that Marta cannot curb her appetites – neither her volatile temper nor her desire for sexual connections.

Junior’s obsessive desire to straighten his hair both infuriates and frightens her as it seems to her that it is increasing evidence that Junior is likely a maricon (a derogatory term for a gay male in Spanish).

The boy's paternal grandmother (Nelly Ramos) who might be a ray of hope in an otherwise desperate childhood encourages his behavior (both the hair straightening and the singing) with the hope that she can tempt Junior to come live with her. 

Juxtaposed against this emotional drama is the very real news reports of the ill health of President Hugo Chavez who was battling cancer at the time of the making of this film. The director cited the fanatical devotion to Chavez and socialism as a sort of metaphor for a lack of tolerance for difference in Venezuela. This may be her explicitly stated goal but the message is too subtly communicated on film.

The performances by Lange, Castillo and Ramos are convincing (particularly mother and son) and the story powerful although one leaves the theatre utterly defeated by the bleakness of the setting and the lack of hope for Junior who eventually is forced to shave his head (and forfeit his dreams) or risk being virtually sold to his grandmother by his increasingly desperate mother.

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