“Is it better to comb your hair than to want to play with guns?” In many ways, this question captures the essence of Mariana Rondon’s raw and multi-layered Venezuelan drama Bad Hair (Pelo Malo). Set within the over-populated housing projects of Caracas, Bad Hair observes a young boy, Junior (featured), whose constant obsession with straightening his curly black locks elicits an onslaught of homophobic panic from his misguided mother. Although Junior’s hair symbolizes the struggle with his developing sexual identity, the narrative of Bad Hair poetically perverts the typical coming of age tale about gender confusion into an astute social commentary about the contemporary anxieties permeating Venezuela during the politically tumultuous years of Chavez’s reign. Born to an African-American father, Junior’s hair is emblematic not only of his burgeoning flamboyant tastes, but serves as a metaphor for the rejection of his roots—representing the racial tensions and various power struggles dominating the film. An official selection for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Bad Hair starkly captures the contention between a boy awakening to his homosexual feelings and his embittered mother; set amidst a hostile urban backdrop of failed political ideology.
Junior’s mother, Marta, is a single mother of two who lives with the persistent burden of having to support Junior and his nine-month old brother—an acute anxiety that is only compounded by the fact that she was recently laid off from her job as a security guard for reasons not mentioned. Somewhat traditional and overwhelmed with her parental duties, Marta makes no secret of her impatience with Junior’s effeminate behavior—rejecting his desire to become a straight-haired pop singer with a weary and undisguised volatility. Luckily, Junior finds support and solace through his paternal grandmother—who indulges his eccentric fixations by giving him the opportunity to express himself as he pleases. It is Junior’s grandmother who utters the beginning quote to Marta; expressing relief that her grandson’s interests will deter him from a life of gang violence and crime (not to mention that she is more than thrilled to have a kindred companion during her lonely golden years).
Bad Hair paints an especially complex portrait of gender norms in Latin America: with a subplot involving Marta practically prostituting herself to her boss in order to reclaim her job, Rondon is seizing the opportunity to depict the terrible dichotomy between what is expected of women and how they often subvert these norms to provide for their family. In fact, the most interesting aspect of Marta’s character is how she harbors a very rigid and traditional attitude towards gender norms and codes of conduct, yet she works as a security guard, which doesn’t seem to be a very conventional job for a woman. “Marta is asking Junior to mask his femininity like she had to. She wants him to be tough as a mechanism of survival. In fact, I call the three main characters [mother, son, grandmother] the triangle of power, because each one is trying to survive in their own way, and unfortunately Junior gets caught in a tough balancing act of pleasing both”, noted Rondon as I sat down with her to discuss the film. “But”, I reply, “it seems like no matter what he turns to—whether it is a gun or a hair dryer—there is going to be danger for Junior so long as he continues to live in the homophobic and violently machismo environment of the Venezuelan slums. Would you agree?” “Absolutely.”
There is an organic confidence in the way Rondon captures Junior’s embryonic sexual curiosity in the context of his environment—there’s one scene that remarkably captures these instinctual desires in which Junior eyes the male kiosk vendor with a sense of innocent enamor. Filmed on location with a hand-held camera, the tightly bound exterior compositions are shot with an intense intimacy that makes the streets of Caracas feel like a breathing organism trapped within the confines of poverty and potent social anxieties. With an aesthetic technique that borders on neo-realism, the film chronicles Junior’s plight through a passively objective lens—as though we are unbiased voyeurs witnessing the story unfold within a dilapidated landscape. Observing her characters with an unflinching sense of detachment, Rondon approaches the narrative through a gaze that is as resilient as her characters, resulting in a mise-en-scene that mirrors the calloused grit of the film. Samuel Lange plays Junior with a delicate authenticity that’s wonderful to watch, but a great deal of admiration must be directed towards Samantha Castillo; who makes you love her performance of Marta as much as you hate her character. Making her acting debut in film, Castillo plays Marta with an omnipresent, thinly veiled anger that reflects the unsettling, persistent anxiety within the film.
While Bad Hair’s socio-cultural criticisms and portrayal of adolescent malady could have been more tightly aligned and incorporated with a bit more refinement, Mariana Rondon’s enthralling film nonetheless beautifully illustrates how one boy’s pre-sexual queer awakening can both conflict with societal conventions, yet also serve as an escape from a rapidly disintegrating world. The film provides a textured backdrop of our characters’ unaccommodating environment, which nicely parallels the friction between mother and son. So why use hair? “I wanted to start with the superficial, and go deep. That mirror becomes more of a window of how you identify and accept both yourself and the other”, adds Rondon.