As embodied by nine-year-old Samuel Lange Zambrano, the bed-headed protagonist of Mariana Rondón’s Bad Hair only finds himself in a truly freeing bodily position in the film’s opening scene, when he sneaks in some transcendent hot-tub flotation at an upper-class home his mother is cleaning. Elsewhere, he’s stretched like taffy into various shapes and personas, whether they’re ones involuntarily inherited through the value systems of his conservative community or ones he’s auditioning in private for his ideal future self. A number of clues—his lone female friend, his interest in singing and dancing, and, most of all, his overwhelming desire to straighten his curly mop of hair—lead both the audience and his unemployed, widowed mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) into suspecting Junior of being gay, though, unsurprisingly, she’s slow on the uptake. What with her constant job-searching and financial anxiety, Marta can’t so easily expend the mental effort to reckon with her son’s secret identity, so until a quasi-breakthrough hits late in the film, their interactions are weighed down by repressed tension further exacerbated by Junior’s jealousy in the face of his mother’s seeming favoritism of his baby brother.
With school fast approaching, Junior wants his ID picture taken with straightened hair and a pop-star jacket, but Marta can’t afford to indulge her son’s anxiety-provoking flights of fancy. In some contexts, this conflict might give way to a tender coming-out story, but Bad Hair’s milieu—a sprawling, Co-op City-like urban-housing development in Venezuela with a one-size-fits-all approach to its many cramped family units and a corresponding atmosphere of stress and violence—leaves little room for warmth. Glimpsed early and often from the windows of buses stuck in mid-day traffic, the place Junior calls home is a hulking eyesore on the outskirts of Caracas that, from its façade alone, looks to have been engineered so as to stifle any traces of individuality. Inside, what little variety does exist—say, between Marta’s under-furnished, utilitarian unit and her mother’s thrift store-decorated abode that soon becomes home to Junior’s tentative grasps at flamboyance—is made visually indistinguishable through the dimly lit drabness of cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa’s images. Overheard on television sets are beauty pageants, news broadcasts of horrible violence, and nationalist programming, all apparently viable distractions from the squalid quality of life.
A significant portion of Bad Hair takes place during the day when Marta is out hustling her former managers for work and Junior’s under the half-hearted supervision of various babysitters. As a result, the film splits its concentration between the two characters, intercutting Marta’s daily grind with Junior’s curious wandering. This back-and-forth approach yields authentic quotidian detail just as often as it brings about schematic screenwriting maneuvers, such as when a scene of Marta mockingly dancing with her son is echoed shortly after by a much cheerier moment of Junior boogying with his grandmother, the differences between the two caretaker figures boldly underlined. In one of the film’s least compelling threads, Marta is victim to a string of bad sex encounters, which play both as troubling reminders of her deficient love life in the absence of her late husband and overly familiar echoes of more self-serious “realist” projects.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the film’s sociological insights. Encompassing secretive behaviors, boyish rebellion, early stirrings of sexual desire, extreme love/hate swings between mother and child, and macho posturing, Rondón’s narrative works through the many contradictions brewing inside Junior in the wake of his personal actualization without ever feeling like a dramatic checklist. It also handles this while maintaining attentiveness to the nuances of Marta’s own struggle; after all, her domineering parental tactics are as much a maternal instinct to protect Junior from the cutthroat community as they are a product of her own underlying homophobia. And yet, in spite of its generous division of focus, Bad Hair, like so many valuable social-problem films, concludes with its various personal tensions unresolved and its thorniest characters unredeemed. Faced with homophobia-induced violence and the possibility of being outright rejected by his mother, Junior finally falls back on the only persona he knows will keep him alive, with the seed of self-loathing at this point already well-planted.