Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano), a 9-year-old living in a ramshackle tenement building in Caracas with his mother and infant brother, is obsessed with one thing: Making his curly hair, a genetic hand-me-down from his absent father, straight and smooth so he can pose for the school class picture dressed as a pop singer. He watches instructional YouTube videos that show viewers how to make those curls smooth. His doting grandmother (Nelly Ramos) washes his hair with eggs and cooking oil and other household ingredients, promising they’ll do the trick. He looks at himself in the mirror — and brushes.
Meanwhile, his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who has lost her job as a security guard and is trying to find employment while looking after Junior’s infant brother, is worried. She spots Junior dancing with some friends with his arms raised high in the air and tells him men don’t dance like that. She catches him in a dress during playtime with Grandma and asks him to take it off. His best friend is a sassy little girl (Maria Emilia Subaran) whose Barbie dolls he borrows to conduct hair experiments. And there’s a vaguely effeminate manner to Junior — all signs implying, in his mom’s eyes, that he might be gay, which is a huge no-no in their culture.
With Pelo malo (Bad Hair), writer-director Mariana Rondón captures the complex relationship between a mother who is more concerned about what people will think than she is about her son, and Junior, who doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his habits. Using a stark, realistic style, long takes and naturalistic performances, Rondón gives us a portrait of a woman under duress who is fretting about money and a paycheck as much as she frets about her son. Marta never confronts him directly about her fears; instead, she tries to steer Junior away from his relentless pursuits and shows him tough love by ignoring him or having sex with a man with her bedroom door open so her son can watch, hoping to ignite his heterosexuality.
But Junior is still years away from puberty: There’s nothing intentional about his obsessions. Like most children, he just does what he’s interested in, unaware of what other people think, and he will not be deterred. Besides, what’s the big deal about wanting to have nice hair, anyway?
Although the movie is nominally a character study, Pelo malo doubles as a story about yearning for things that are beyond one’s reach, whether it’s straight hair or a better life. The movie has moments of whimsy: In one scene, Junior and his friend look at the building across the street and come up with stories about what people glimpsed through the windows are doing.
Mostly, though, Pelo malo sticks to the grim reality of its characters without edging into gloom and despair, culminating in a definitive finale that settles Junior’s Quixotic quest for good. The ending is a bummer, but a fantasy sequence during the closing credits leave you with a glimmer of the possibility that there will be happier times ahead. for Junior No matter how dire things may get, Pelo malo argues that hope springs eternal.
Cast: Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo, Nelly Ramos, Maria Emilia Subaran.
Writer-director: Mariana Rondón.
A Figa Films release. Running time: 93 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores, Tower Theater.