When Crazy Rich Asians stormed into the zeitgeist this summer, it was billed as the “return of the rom-com” — a dazzling, starry-eyed fairy tale brimming with all the classic genre showpieces, from weepy separations to airport proposals. But if you take a deeper look, the film is more closely mapped to a traditional coming-of-age narrative than a typical romantic comedy, its climactic Mahjong showdown between the heroine and her boyfriend’s mother a battle of wills where Rachel (Constance Wu) uses her newfound confidence and self-acceptance to convince the other woman of her true power. (The inevitable reunion between the romantic leads is merely coda after that.)
Netflix’s spritely, though slight, new film Nappily Ever After is also bildungsroman disguised as rom-com, the refreshing script much more concerned with its heroine’s emotional arc and personal growth than her ultimate relationship status. (Though that doesn’t stop us from being privy to some finely sensuous love scenes, including a sexy scalp-massaging moment that will give you chills.) The digital platform’s latest feathery feel-good movie about female romantic empowerment — following teen comedies To All the Boys I Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser — Nappily Ever After is a testament to how women’s psyches become linked to our appearances, and how liberating it can be when we’re able to shed the weighty coils of gendered expectations.
Based on Trisha R. Thomas’ novel of the same name and helmed by Saudi feminist auteur Haifaa al-Mansour (the recent Mary Shelley), Nappily Ever After stars Sanaa Lathan (always wonderful) as uptight ad exec Violet, a thirtysomething perfectionist who embodies every fear her mother ever had about her daughter’s place in the world as a black woman. Paulette (Lynn Whitfield, charmingly rigid) never allowed Violet the freedoms of being a child, afraid any raucous activity would fluff her daughter’s carefully relaxed locks into a curly mop — a look the girl couldn’t afford if she wanted to be taken seriously in a society dominated by white beauty standards.
Almost 30 years later, pristinely groomed Violet treats her hair like armor. She glides through the world with false confidence, her long, luscious mane and statuesque physique carrying her through seeming success after success, from a high-profile career to her relationship with a capital-d Doctor (Ricky Whittle.) Her coastal-chic house of cards topples, however, when an expected marriage proposal ends with Clint telling her their life together has felt like a “two-year first date.” Yikes.
Her ex’s hurtful words prompt Violet to begin a hair journey that becomes a not-so-sophisticated metaphor for her inner life. From natural tresses to a weave to a post-breakup blonde ‘do, the film traces an unsubtle (and unfair) connection between the protagonist’s psychological turmoil and how “fake” her hair becomes. After trying out a new blonde vixen persona and humiliating herself during a night out, Violet drunkenly erases her new coiffure in the most heart-stopping scene of the movie. Her makeup-smeared face framed in a closeup against her bathroom mirror, she tearfully shears off her impossible-to-comb bleached curls, finally releasing herself from her patriarchal Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a beautiful, cathartic and all-too-relatable scene set against The Cinematic Orchestra’s sensitive piano-and-string ballad “To Build a Home.” (Who hasn’t stared into the mirror and cried out of frustration?)
Any other pic might have tried to film it as a funny or rebellious makeover moment, a move out of necessity or social pressure, but here we finally see Violet make a choice of her own, on her own. She’s been so busy projecting a calculated facsimile of herself to the world that she barely even knows who she really is. Violet is striking with her new, cropped look.
She soon connects with a naturalist hairdresser, Will (Lyriq Bent), and his indepedently minded young daughter, Zoe (Daria Johns), a pair that eventually help Violet find the courage to stand up to her Sonderkommando-like mother. (Johns is so delightful in this role, I need Netflix to immediately greenlight a spinoff TV series for tweens just about her character.) Still, the film doesn’t end the way you think. Instead, moment after moment showcases Violet finding her warmth and pushing herself out of her comfort zones, leading to a freeing climax that forces her mother to confront her own psychological imprisonment within prescribed femininity.
“I am so used to looking at myself in the mirror all the time and now I never do,” Violet tells her friends about her short hair. “It’s only when I catch somebody’s reaction that it all comes back.” This is a powerful statement, though I disagree that one cannot be both bald and vain (or that vanity itself is inherently harmful, as it can be a powerful asset for marginalized people). That being said, some of the best TV moments in the past year have taken a lens to how women put on their “woman costumes”: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel performs an entire makeup-and-hair routine before her husband wakes up in the morning, pretending she #wokeuplikethis, and on AMC’s recently canceled Dietland, Tamara Tunie’s beauty-industry turncoat Julia spends several minutes removing her wig, jewelry, makeup and clothes to show Plum (Joy Nash) how hard women work to just not be invisible while walking down the street.
Nappily Ever After is simple and imperfect, but also so colorful and joyous you’ll give the electric razor a double-take the next time you’re in the bathroom.
Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Lyriq Bent, Daria Johns, Lynn Whitfield, Ricky Whittle, Ernie Hudson
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Premiered: Friday, Sept. 21 (Netflix)