Mariana Rondón’s Bad Hair is a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano), with dreams of singing stardom and straight hair. But when his hard-working mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), flies into a homophobic panic in her desire to protect him from the machismo and ruthlessness of their culture, an all-out war breaks out between the two. Outside their one-on-one confrontations is the harsh reality of bullies, poverty, and abusive authority figures. The typical childhood narrative of defying one’s parents is no longer an insulated battle, but one played out in a field in which either party risks injury or worse. For as harsh and brutal as Junior’s punishments are, Marta misguidedly executes them with heartfelt intentions. On the eve of Bad Hair’s release in New York City, Rondón sat down to speak to us about the film’s central mother-son relationship, the painfulness of Junior’s rebellions, shooting on Caracas’s barren and dusty streets, the meaning of “bad hair,” and more.
What was the inspiration behind the movie?
I wanted to work within two themes. The first is the respect between people and how we maintain our differences. The second is the violence that happens when respect doesn’t exist. So, I went out into the streets of Caracas, which are very violent, and began to record violent incidents. It’s a violence that’s very physical and very real. The wrong look was enough cause a fight. And if all it took was a look, then it’s obvious there’s no respect there. While I was observing this, I began to construct the story.
There’s also hints throughout the narrative at Hugo Chavez and the sacrifices some of his most loyal citizens went through for him. What political themes did you want to address in the film?
When we started the film, that was what was shown on the news. It was what was going on in the country. It was important to include those sequences, not just for context to fill in the setting, but because it was an important civic and political moment. People became fanatics, almost religiously so. That universe is where our story takes place. It’s like a distinct form of violence, too. Violence in a social context ends up being reflected in the homes of friends and family. It always translates into the home.
In the film, Junior struggles against the machismo of his culture, since he doesn’t fit into it. Would you say Bad Hair is a critique of that culture?
It’s not a critique so much as it is a mirror. It’s incredible, but in Latin-American society, the motor behind machismo is the women. It’s cruel. When that mother asks her son to do what she does, to be strong and masculine to protect herself, it’s ironic, no? So feminine and sensual, she’s asking her son to abandon his femininity and warmth like she has in order to be strong and hardened. It’s for protection.
The two young actors in the film were very impressive dealing with dialogue that covered subjects like poverty, gun violence, and rape. How did you decide on which children to be the heart of your movie?
Samuel, who played Junior, was one of the first boys to try out for the part. But when I first saw him, I didn’t think he was ready to hold an entire movie. I saw at least 100 more boys, but he asked to come back five times. Because it was a big open casting, he paid lots of attention to what I liked from the other kids and he learned that. By the fifth time, I knew he knew how to work. The girl took much longer to cast, because I wanted someone who had the force of her character’s personality.
Did they have previous experience as actors?
No, this was the first movie for all of the actors other than the boss [played by Beto Benites]. The mother is played by a theatrical actress. The grandmother was a singer when she was younger.
The mother is an impressively combatant figure, but she’s deeply flawed. How did you conceptualize her behavior?
I worked with the two actors [mother and son] over three months to create that relationship. We created a game for them: One actor would have deciding power, and the other would lose the privilege. We switched between the two daily. That power struggle developed their character’s personalities. They’re two figures constantly at war.
With a title like Bad Hair, there’s obviously some discussion of racism/colorism in the movie. How did you seek to approach this?
The expression “bad hair” is one of the most common in Venezuela. Around 90% of the population has “bad hair,” and in a family it’s absolutely common. Straightening hair is one of the most profitable businesses in Venezuela. On every block, there’s a place that can straighten your hair. It’s important that if something is that pervasive, you can still identify and love yourself as well as others. The original idea of the movie, that of respect, opens from several different topics: from hair, sexuality, and politics. It’s like a big canopy that encompasses everything.
Is there one thing you hope audiences will walk away with after watching the film?
What occurred to me over the course of a year touring the film is that it’s important and that there are very many people that need a movie like Bad Hair. There’s always a person that connects with this film. It’s like if the movie had the capacity to speak to that spectator’s hurt or anguish. I would love for this film to continue being important for its viewers.