Subtlety is a privilege often dishonored in moviemaking. When pictures go out of their way to be bombastic instead of opting for the quieter, more gracious, approach, they tend to reveal a substratum of insecurity. Of course, one hardly faults blockbusters for having too much action (though, with a few in mind, there is such a thing as too too much action) and if a subtle technique goes against your core themes (like this year’s examples “Whiplash,” “Birdman” and “Interstellar”) then you have immunity. Whatever the context, however, there should always be a gauge by which one measures whether the filmmakers are cranking it too hard. What is this “it,” you might ask? Anything, really: hammy performances, shaky cameras, hammered themes, etc. There’s a breaking point for every element, in every film. And when theme reaches this breaking point, the whole picture comes crashing down. This is the unfortunate fate of Mariana Rondòn‘s “Bad Hair.”
The setting is the dilapidated urban ruins of an impoverished neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. Nine-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) is anticipating the start of school, and preparing himself for his school photograph, which is a prerequisite for every student. His one and only friend, a local girl in the neighborhood (Maria Emilia Sulbaran), wants to be a princess and emulate a Venezuelan model. Something that’s totally acceptable by the school’s photographer. When the same photographer tells Junior how he should be a soldier, Junior responds in protest: “I’m going to have straight hair, and be a singer!” We never do get to see the photographer’s response, but everything about “Bad Hair” tells us it couldn’t have been as encouraging as it was for Junior’s friend. This stubborn desire to straighten his curly locks and sing for his school photograph worries Junior’s single mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who’s only real escape is taking care of her baby boy. But, it’s a frustrated and annoyed type of worry, rather than a loving one. Though, why is this a worry in the first place? That question is at the heart of “Bad Hair.”
It is a question that Marta is asked directly, when she voices her concerns that Junior might be gay. “He will suffer,” she says. As a woman who has lost her security guard job because of an incident that is only alluded to, never confronted, and a widow whose husband’s death is never explained, only mentioned, Marta is very bitter for reasons we clearly don’t need to worry ourselves over. The point is, she takes this bitterness out on Junior. His grandmother Carmen (Nelly Ramos) doesn’t seem to have any issues with blow drying Junior’s hair straight, just as he wants, and dressing him up in a singer’s shirt, just as he thought he wanted, but her final, unapologetic, scene confirms that she’s no saint.
Rondòn’s agenda is as clear as the innocence of Junior’s baby brother. Homophobia is rampant in many areas of the world. A poor neighborhood in a country all-too-familiar with military dictatorship is one such area, and Rondòn sprinkles the background with innuendos affirming homophobia to drive the point ever forward. That this is morally and humanely wrong is obvious and should never be questioned. However, Marta’s concern over Junior is still a legitimate one. Yes, if he is indeed gay (the film is a little contradictory on that note, which is realistic seeing as how this is an underdeveloped nine-year-old child we’re talking about), he will suffer. It’s a point that seems to be completely swept under the rug by Rondòn, in lieu of a more one-sided perspective from an emotionally bruised child. Had we clearer insight as to why Marta is so quick to lash out at Junior, why she physically recoils from him, or sits away from him on the bus, or doesn’t cook him fried plantains, we might invest more easily into the story. Instead, we are left to paint Marta as a homophobe and little else, which feels incredibly disingenuous considering she is one of only two three-dimensional characters. And it feels like Rondòn is forcing this label, rather then letting it develop in a more measured way, which taints the whole affair even more.
Technically speaking, “Bad Hair” is accomplished. Wide shots of the neighborhoods and apartment buildings devoid of any character or soul paint an appropriately bleak picture to go along with the film’s melanoid tone. The two central performances from Zambrano and Castillo are captivating enough to hold attention, and go along way in attempting to reign in Rondòn’s obstinate insistence on hammering the message. Which brings us back to sweet subtlety and how we dearly miss it after watching something as full of forced spite as “Bad Hair.” The most honorable objectives in the world can’t overrule a blatant attempt at strong-arming emotion. With her underdeveloped, dismissive, screenplay and myopic direction, Rondòn is as delicate with her theme as Michael Bay is with his American flag shots or Tim Burton with his kitschy quirkiness. That hers is a serious context makes it that much more disappointing. [C-]