★★★★★ | Pelo Malo (Bad Hair)

The opening scene of the extraordinary refreshing movie reveals a very reluctant Marta cleaning a luxury apartment aided and abetted by Junior her 9-year-old son who she has dragged along, as she cannot afford a babysitter.

She’s annoyed as she feels that this work is beneath her but has to do it anyway as she is unable to get re-hired in her Security Guard job that she was suspended from for some unspecified reasons. Marta lives with her two children in a decaying tower block housing project in one of Caracas’s poorest working class areas and it’s a daily struggle simply trying to make ends meet and get enough money to feed the family.

This is not the only reason why this attractive, but sullen, young woman looks angry all the time, as she is constantly battling with Junior, who even at this very early age, she suspects may have homosexual tendencies. The boy’s best friend is a potty mouth girl and he prefers to play with her dolls rather than pitch in with the other boys on the Estate and join their rough-horse games. Not only that but as he has inherited from his father (since departed) an unruly mop of curly hair, he is desperate to have it straightened in time for the obligatory photograph he needs to start High School next time.

It’s yet another reason to continue the running spate with his mother who can barely disguise her loathing for her eldest child, and who chooses to use all her motherly love on the baby instead. However, Junior’s paternal grandmother, who has no real love for her ex-daughter in law, is happy to indulge her grandson. She has an ulterior motive though as she would like him to come live with her so that he will be around to take care of her when she gets older. She helps Junior experiment straightening his hair and even makes him an outfit to wear for the photograph. It’s based on one that his favourite pop idol wears but when the end result looks too girly for him, he starts to fight with his grandmother too.

Junior is too young to understand what he is feeling and his fawning admiration for handsome teenager Mario who runs a news kiosk could, of course, be just a schoolboy crush, but Marta has already decided that it is unhealthy and is the reason that her effeminate son is developing into something that she so obviously finds abhorrent. She also knows that as the adult in this situation she has the power and the ultimate control and it’s what she will use to get her own way.

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All this family drama is played out against the rapidly changing political instability in Venezuela that is pushing this family (and so many others) into an uncertain future and making sheer financial desperation become a major factor in shaping people’s beliefs and standards. The odd thing that in this patriarchal society Marta is clinging to this outdated attitudes, which are rank with homophobia even though the job that she is so desperate to recover for herself is one that is traditional, a very masculine occupation.

It is nevertheless a wonderful melodrama that even with the futility of the embittered mother’s position she still wants to fight the natural development of her child even though he obviously has no idea of what he is even happening to him and his sexuality. Samantha Castillo as Marta, and a complete scene-stealing turn by Samuel Lange Zabrina as Junior enhances it with a stunningly realistic performance.

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It won writer/director Mariana Rondón the major award at the prestigious San Sebastián International Film Festival but the main reason that this excellent movie deserves our attention is because she chose to tackle the very sensitive subject of budding sexuality, and in an environment/culture that is facing such turmoil right now anyway.

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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