When we’re little, the things we want so badly in our miniaturized here-and-now are often impossible for grown-ups to understand. That’s certainly the case with the nine-year-old boy at the center of Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondón’s Bad Hair: Junior (Samuel Lange), a kid growing up in a rough housing complex in Caracas, is convinced that his hair, a springy, dusky cloud, is standing in the way of everything he wants. He needs to get his photo taken for his school ID, and doing so requires money that his mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), doesn’t have. But lack of funds isn’t even the biggest problem: Junior yearns to present himself in that photo as a suave pop singer with straight, silky hair. Drifting around within his fog of not-quite-articulated thoughts — which may be the state of childhood in a nutshell — is the idea that his mother will love him more if he has “good” hair.
As it is, Marta is struggling. She has lost her job as a security guard, and she lavishes what little time and energy she has on Junior’s brother, still an infant. But whether or not it’s what Rondón intends, our sympathies remain squarely with Junior, as we watch him struggle to drag a comb through his glorious little mane — it springs right back up, a cheerful affront to all his hard work — or slather it with cooking oil in a desperate, ill-advised attempt to make it sleek and glossy. Rondón is at her best when she keeps the focus on Junior, whom Lange plays as a somber, charismatic presence. She doesn’t strain to spell out what his leanings are, because they’re beside the point: He’s just a child trying to map out his future, romantic and otherwise, and taming his hair is a way of controlling the uncontrollable.
In one of Bad Hair’s loveliest scenes, Junior and a little neighbor friend (played, with charming matter-of-factness, by María Emilia Sulbarán) stand on the decrepit balcony of their apartment complex and look across the way at other decrepit balconies, making up stories about the people they see, wondering if those people are happier than they are. There’s no self-pity in the game — the pair is motivated mostly by childlike curiosity, with just a drop of normal human envy.
It’s harder to empathize with Marta, as beleaguered as she is: She brushes Junior off, repeatedly and angrily, fearing that coddling him too much — or even just treating him with basic mother-child attentiveness — will only exacerbate what she’s certain are “homosexual” tendencies. We’re conditioned as moviegoers, and as human beings too, to wait for the moment Marta will show her son just one scrap of affection. It arrives, eventually, but it might be too little, too late — the story would have more emotional resonance if Marta showed more confused ambivalence, instead of just benumbed stringency. Still, there’s plenty of prickly tenderness, for both mother and son, at the heart of Bad Hair. All children yearn for things beyond their reach, and if they’re honest about it, adults do too. It’s a feeling you never outgrow.