Straightening Things Out

Samuel Lange in Mariana Rondón’s “Bad Hair.” | CINEMA TROPICAL AND FIGA FILMS

Samuel Lange in Mariana Rondón’s “Bad Hair.” | CINEMA TROPICAL AND FIGA FILMS

Bad Hair” is a gritty, absorbing film set in Caracas, Venezuela, about nine-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange), who is determined to straighten his unruly curly hair in time for his school photo. Junior’s widowed mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), disapproves of her son’s constant primping, and the battle of wills that takes place between them is as much about conformity and being different as it is about hair. The title is a metaphor for the characters’ hardscrabble lives, consistently knotty and difficult to untangle.

Marta, struggling to raise Junior and his infant brother on her own, is a temporarily unemployed security guard hoping to get her job back after a suspension. She is troubled that her elder son is not very masculine and criticizes him when he sings pop tunes or dances with his eyes closed, waving his arms slowly in the air. Other boys who live in their tenement perform hip-hop moves that are very different than Junior’s. When Marta presses him on why he acts the way he does, Junior says, “Because I feel like it.” Marta yells at him, displeased with his independence.

Junior is also crushed on the local grocer, Mario (Julio Méndez), whom he says has “amazing eyes.” He spies on Mario from his apartment window and admires him on the basketball court. Mario is perhaps not entirely ignorant of the attention. Other locals are aware of it as well. Marta, of course, becomes angry when she learns about this.

A hardscrabble mom faces a chaotic life and an effeminate son

Marta so vehemently objects to her son’s effeminate nature — she scolds him for peeing sitting down — she asks a doctor, “Why is he weird?” She fears Junior is gay and would suffer if he is, and also wonders if his orientation is her fault. The doctor suggests Junior needs a father figure, someone to show him how men and women love each other. Marta knows that the attractive neighbor whom she has a passionate tryst with one afternoon is no father figure. He may be the only source of real pleasure in her life, but he’s only good for sex.

“Bad Hair” may villainize Marta for not accepting her son as he is, but it also shows her struggling to establish some sense of her own dignity and help Junior develop his. Constantly begging favors from babysitters she can’t afford and humiliating herself to get back the job she lost, Marta makes bad decisions out of economic and emotional desperation. Inevitably, she takes her frustrations out on her son.

Junior’s grandmother, Carmen (Nelly Ramos), who lives nearby, offers to pay Marta to let her raise the boy, who in turn can look after her. Marta stubbornly refuses. When Junior spends time with his grandmother, she straightens his hair and teaches him 60s songs. But when she makes him a “singer’s suit,” Junior is upset that it “looks like a dress,” something Marta is unhappy about as well.

In a later scene, when Junior wears an oversized hoodie that Mario gives him and poses like a gangster in a mirror, Marta is also uncomfortable with that image. The film returns again and again to issues of appearance, masculinity, identity, and sexuality.

Writer and director Mariana Rondón films “Bad Hair” in an intimate, almost documentary style. Her neo-realist approach has viewers practically eavesdropping on the characters, which makes their emotions more palpable. The film’s authenticity is affecting, and the characters, despite their flaws, are sympathetic. Rondón coaxes strong performances from her two leads, Lange and Castillo.

Haircuts have long been a symbol of life change in film and literature, and this device is especially resonant here. As “Bad Hair” builds to its provocative ending, mother and son force a compromise that yields a powerful moment. The film’s final shot beautifully addresses how conformity and difference can intersect when they interact.

BAD HAIR | Directed by Mariana Rondón | Cinema Tropical and Figa Films | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Nov. 19 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. |