Mariana Rondón, 2013, Venezuela-Peru-Argentina-Germany
Having seen upbeat words such as “wonderful” and “charming” on the packaging for the Venezualan drama ‘Pelo Malo’ (‘Bad Hair’), I am sure I was expecting something like ‘My Life as a Dog’; you know, an amusing bildungsroman with an underlay of melancholy. But ‘Pelo Malo’ is more like Koreeda’s ‘Nobody Knows’ or Detlav Buck's ‘Tough Enough’. Even Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ had an upbeat veneer so that you would be forgiven for not noticing how bleak it really was. But ‘Pelo Melo’ pulls few punches in depicting a boy’s burgeoning self awareness just as his mother is turning up the heat to make him conform.
This isn’t like, say, the short film ‘Barbie Boy’ where the parents are generally supportive of their boy's obvious difference, or even ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ where the kid is sure of what he likes. No, this is a different beast. As Tara Brady concludes, “- a child being twisted toward conformity does not make for easy viewing.” Indeed: this is the tale of nine year-old Junior (the riveting Samuel Lange Zambrano) who likes to sway where other boys breakdance, though he isn’t sure why. His mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) is so busy trying to find a job – having lost one as a security guard due, it seems, to something to do with her temperament – and bringing up a baby that she barely notices Junior’s needs (not that she really cares). But she does notice how different he tends to be, even if he himself doesn’t really, and she doesn’t like it. She sees signs that he might be a budding homosexual and she will disapprove until he conforms to traditional masculinity.
Samantha Castillo as Marta does exceptional work colouring in an unlikeable woman. In interviews, director Mariana Rondón refuses to outright condemn this mother, reaching for something more insightful and complex: she says,
“It's not a critique so much as it is a mirror. It's incredible, but in Latin-American society, the motor behind machismo is the women.”
But even so, rarely has the relentless destructive forces of homophobia on a family unit been so rendered without sentiment. The scenes between the mother and son are charged and often exceptional. Their battleground overpopulated poverty and desperation. Like the work of Ramin Bahrani, Rondón’s direction is brisk and unobtrusive, allowing nuance and detail to speak volumes; and similarly, there is something at the centre of the drama that remains troubling long afterwards.
There is no one on hand to truly counter Marta’s obsession with Junior’s noncomformity. Well, there is his grandmother (Nelly Ramos) who is willing to indulge Junior’s quirks, seeing in them a way that will save him from the violent culture all around them and which killed her son; but her motives chime as selfish and creepy (she tries to barter for his company it seems because she is lonely) and a little crazed. Indeed, a hint of the crazy seems all around, not just in Marta’s adamant homophobia or granny’s behaviour,but it’s in the chaotic crowds of the streets and also in the reports that a man killed his own mother as an offering to make the ailing president well again. Against this unsafe backdrop – epitomised when Junior and his one friend look at the apartments opposite and try to imagine stories for them – Junior himself seems the one carrier of calm.
So Junior tries to stand his ground but it’s a losing battle. His dream to have his curly hair straightened to be a portrait of a singer falls apart as the need for money and compassion evaporate before he even knows he has lost. It’s a heartbreaker.