A young boy looking to express himself clashes with his single mother’s need to control her rapidly disintegrating world in Mariana Rondon’s impressively multilayered “Bad Hair.” Set in a working-class housing project in Caracas, the pic has a narrative intimacy fed by larger comments on Venezuela’s failed sociopolitical experiment, so while Rondon’s focus is the struggle of wills between a boy awakening to homosexual feelings and his embittered mother, the helmer invests their collision with a powerful specificity. A top prize at San Sebastian should accelerate snowballing sales across international markets.
A tendency toward over-shaky handheld lensing subsides as the story settles down and the characters become clear. Marta (Samantha Castillo) cleans rich people’s homes, but she’s not cut out for that kind of work: She’s a security guard recently laid off for an unspecified infraction, and she’s become increasingly desperate to get her old job back. Some of her anxiety stems from the fact that she has two kids to feed, 9-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) and an infant boy. But much of Marta’s stubborn anger is part of a larger comment Rondon is making about power and violence in Venezuela’s crumbling society, symbolized by the role security guards play in enforcing illusory notions of stability.
Junior’s individuality doesn’t jive with Marta’s belief in strict male-female modes of behavior (though she’s in a nontraditional line of work for a woman). His constant fussing with his tightly curled hair, which he’s desperate to have straightened, and general obsession with the mirror are a major source of friction between mother and son. Paternal grandma Carmen (Nelly Ramos) is far more indulgent, encouraging the boy to sing like her idol, 1960s Venezuelan pop singer Henry Stephen, even sewing a mod costume so Junior can perform. Marta’s exasperation clashes with Carmen’s desire for the boy’s companionship, fueling the power struggle between the two women.
Rondon (“Postcards From Leningrad”) does a superb job of handling Junior’s embryonic instincts, partly manifested by a pre-sexual attraction to a kiosk vendor he spies from his window. He’s too young, of course, to identify what he’s feeling, but Junior dances to a different beat, literally expressed in a lovely short scene in which his moves contrast with the hip-hop spins of some other kids. Less successful is a sequence in which Marta misinterprets a doctor’s advice about “normal” role models and makes certain Junior sees her having sex. Marta’s a lousy, mixed-up mother, but she’s not an idiot, and the incident goes beyond the plausible.
Hugo Chavez’s soon-to-be fatal illness is always in the background, gleaned from news snippets hinting at the country’s unraveling. City streets are painted with a distinctly Chavezian jumble of the Marxist Bolivarian Revolution and a bread-and-circuses type of Christianity; meanwhile, the poor are trapped in a failed ideology. Marta and family live in an enormous, dilapidated apartment block, a symbol of everything wrong with unsupported public housing. Junior and his plucky best friend (Maria Emilia Sulbaran) spend hours playing visual games as they look out at the spectrum of humanity presented on the disintegrating balconies across the way, a safer place than the streets, where gunshots are common and fear of rape is used as a standard cautionary warning.
Though Rondon had a script, she never showed it to the cast, preferring to work with them through improvisation. The results are a testament to the skills of all concerned, and performances are uniformly strong, from Lange’s Junior, struggling with his identity while yearning for his mother’s love, to Castillo’s Marta, wound up and lacking guidance yet unwilling to lower her guard. There’s a terrific moment when she has sex with a swaggering guy, briefly succumbing to the moment but then ensuring she’s in control, and reducing the man to sheepishness once she discards him.
Visuals by Rondon’s regular d.p. Micaela Cajahuaringa are tighter than in previous collaborations, maintaining a tense intimacy that contrasts with glimpses of the threatening world outside. For Junior, safety resides neither inside nor out, though he knows he stands a better chance if he can just win Marta over to his mode of self-realization.