Bad Hair: Toronto Review

Bad Hair Pelo Melo TIFF Still - H 2013

Bad Hair Pelo Melo TIFF Still - H 2013

This miniaturist mosaic provides tender insight into a complicated mother-son relationship.

Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondon's gentle drama centers on a preteen boy whose obsession with his hair causes friction with his widowed mother.

TORONTO – With minor-key delicacy, Bad Hair (Pelo Malo) focuses on a nine-year-old boy exploring issues of identity and desire that he doesn’t yet understand, and the exhausted mother socially conditioned to suppress his self-discovery. Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondon trains an unsentimental eye on these two loving but conflicted figures, viewed in the vivid context of a hostile, overpopulated city. The result is a spare neorealist drama that holds attention and emotional involvement with its deft balance of toughness and sensitivity.

Like Alain Berliner’s 1997 Belgian feature Ma Vie en Rose, Todd Haynes’ 1993 short, Dottie Gets Spanked, and French director Celine Sciamma’s 2011 Tomboy, Rondon’s film deals with the fascinating theme of pre-sexual queer awakening, with all its resultant confusion, shame, embarrassment and isolation. But while homophobia in a macho culture of poverty and violence is central to the story, this is in no way a sociopolitical tract. It’s a rigorously nonjudgmental character study whose melancholy ending packs a quiet wallop.

Saddled with an unruly ’fro that’s the legacy of his dead black father, Junior (Samuel Lange) is obsessed with having his hair straightened to match his fantasy image of a sugary pop singer. He seizes on the ID photo required for the new school year as the ideal makeover moment, but hits a brick wall when trying to get his mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), on board. Suspended from her security guard job and struggling to feed Junior and his baby brother, frazzled young Marta makes no secret of her impatience with her son’s whims, reacting to his effeminate behavior with undisguised anger.

He gets more indulgent treatment from his paternal grandmother, Carmen (Nelly Ramos), whose offer to raise the boy seems driven as much by her need for companionship as his welfare. She picks up on the longing looks Junior shoots at the handsome teen (Julio Mendez) minding the local newsstand. When his mother also becomes aware of the crush, fear and cold pragmatism drive her to take harsh measures to protect her son.

In loose scenes drawn out of improvisation work with the naturalistic actors, the standoff between mother and son is etched with unflinching honesty. Rondon’s detached observational approach and parsimoniousness with plot details may be frustrating for audiences wanting conventional storytelling. But a complex, compassionate picture emerges of the external forces that can cloud a mother’s love, and of the lengths of abnegation to which a child will go to secure a parent's affection.

Micaela Cajahuaringa’s docu-style shooting creates a textured backdrop of the characters’ unaccommodating environment, from the densely crowded Caracas pavements and traffic-snarled streets to the dehumanizing modernist housing blocks where poor families live as if stacked in boxes. In scenes early on that are both innocent and brutal, Junior and his neighbor friend (Maria Emilia Sulbaran) survey the wall of apartments opposite their own, speculating in an “I spy” game on the lives contained in this mockery of a solution to the urban housing crisis. The collision of childhood imagination with stark low-income reality is rendered with poignant understatement.

Rondon ends her film on a sober note that resonates. But she makes delightful use during the end credits of a kitsch late-’60s Venezuelan rock ’n’ roll hit to suggest that Junior’s burgeoning sense of himself may ultimately be resilient.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema; also in San Sebastian festival)

Cast: Samuel Lange, Samantha Castillo, Nelly Ramos, Maria Emilia Sulbaran, Beto Benites, Julio Mendez, Martha Estrada

Production companies: Sudaca Films, in co-production with Imagen Latina, Jose Ibanez, Artefactos S.F., La Sociedad Post, Hanfgarn & Ufer

Director-screenwriter: Mariana Rondon

Producer: Marite Ugas

Director of photography: Micaela Cajahuaringa

Production designer: Matias Tikas

Music: Camilo Froideval

Editor: Marite Ugas

Costume designer: Marisela Marin

Sales: FiGa Films

No rating, 93 minutes.