Nov 22, 2014

Bad Hair

An impressive, tough film by Mariana Rondón, Bad Hair tells the story of Junior, a little gay boy who is obsessed with straightening his beautiful black curls. Rondón does not go into the complicated cultural/racial implications of Junior's dissatisfaction with his curls. She lets the story shed light into these nuances with no editorializing. Of the few Venezuelan films I've seen, this is the only one that is world class, and it is certainly the best. It is well written, well directed, well edited and it has an impressive sound design. The writer/director, the cinematographer, editor and sound designer all happen to be women, which is rare anywhere in cinema. Well done.
A sort of Dardenne brothers' film set in Caracas, Bad Hair is a small, terse movie that manages to tell a rich story without melodrama, exposition or sentimentality, and with a solid sense of craft.
Rondón touches upon many issues of Venezuelan reality just by letting us witness the daily life of Junior and Marta, his beleaguered mother: we learn about the violence that claimed his dad, we see in detail, the poverty from which Marta is trying hard to extricate herself, and we are dropped into a world punished with the sexual mores of unrestrained machismo, like rampant homophobia and an extreme preoccupation with the female body and beauty contests. No other country is more obsessed with, or, I believe, has had more Miss Universe winners than Venezuela.
Marta is a widow, left alone with Junior and a baby (and a fantastic mother in law, who is as mischievous as Marta is dour). But the twist is that Marta, unlike many long-suffering mothers in Latino culture, is a tough, hardened piece of work. The twist is that she rejects her child because he is gay (usually the dad is the uncomprehending dolt, but he is absent here). This is quite daring. Marta makes terrible sacrifices out of a sharp sense of reality, not because she is a saint.
She lost her job as a security guard and is trying to get it back. She and the kids live in a project-like high rise, and she struggles to make ends meet. Just the day to day hassle of scrambling to pay the neighbor to take care of the baby, of not having money to pay for Junior's school photo, of looking for a job and being treated with contempt is a sustained look into a difficult life.
The film shows a reality that Chavismo has not been able to improve for most Venezuelans. Kids play violent games, using foul language alarmingly unsuited to their age, as they listen without flinching to nearby gunfire in the middle of the day. Marta asks for a job and is told she will get minimum wage and no benefits. For all the grandstanding of the Chavista regime, her life, and that of the equally run down neighbors, doesn't seem to get much better. Rondón is smart, however, about not getting into ideological territory: she shows things as they are and lets the viewers reach their own conclusions.
Marta thinks something is wrong with Junior and takes him to the doctor at a public clinic (this is one of the improvements on the lives of the poor by the regime). But she doesn't even know how to talk to the doctor about Junior's sexuality. And the overtaxed, well meaning doctor is no better. His advice to her is to get a man in the home so he can be a role model for the boy. He also tells her to stop bringing her healthy children to the overburdened clinic. In just one scene, we get a lot of information about the reality of the culture and the country. The film is full of such telling moments.
It's one tough film that which shows a mother repulsed by her own child. And Marta is a deeply flawed mother. She is hostile to Junior, and because she is uneducated and prejudiced, is way out of her element trying to bring him up. But within her harshness, she tries her best.  I expected a little more tenderness from the film, a respite from the harshness, but Rondón's sticks to her guns. Life is tough and in such a culture, poor Junior has his work cut out for him. The more clear eyed he is about how hard life is if you are different, the more chances he will have to survive.
This movie would be almost unbearable if it wasn't for a vein of very dry humor and the sharp, sympathetic observation of some funny and bizarre goings on, such as the weight loss meditation seances at a neighbor's house or the endearing, brittle friendship between Junior and his best friend, a charismatic, chubby little girl who dreams of being a beauty queen. I wish that Rondón was a little kinder with Junior, that Marta could reach a softer place in her stony heart, that people in this film would temper their obtuseness, but I respect Rondón's uncompromising vision of reality and I look forward to more good movies from her.

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