One narrative strategy that’s been quite successful for smaller, less-industrialised and more socially conservative filmmaking nations (I’m thinking Iran in the 1990s) has been to focus a story around a child using what is outwardly a fairly whimsical conceit — in this case that Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) doesn’t like his frizzy hair and wants to straighten it — and use this to make trenchant comments about a range of fairly weighty societal issues. Because Junior’s search for a hair straightening solution here is merely a source of occasional comedy. More to the point is what it implies about Junior’s place in society: he’s something of an outsider, as his now-departed father was black, so his hair is a marker of his difference from his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo), who struggles to hold down a job and take care of her two kids (including a distinctly more-loved baby from a different, equally absent, father). Junior’s focus on his appearance is also contextualised within a mediated world of body image obsession, which affects both him and particularly his (apparently only) friend, a chubby young neighbour girl who likes princess dresses and whose mother holds fat-loss clinics in her flat (though they look more like exorcisms for all the good they achieve). This in turn prompts Marta to a mild homophobic panic about her son’s sexuality, which you can track in off-hand comments as well as Marta’s suspicion at both the local shopkeeper and the interest shown by Junior’s black aunt. After all, none of these themes are in any way forced by the filmmaking, which largely avoids melodrama and retains its subtle domestic focus, building up its themes gradually by being observant of the actors and their interactions. Along the way you get a sense of the lives of ordinary, poor Venezuelans, exposed to a lot of the same media messages while struggling to hold down jobs or relationships. For all the almost documentary ease with which it is put together, then, Pelo malo is a very carefully-structured and crafted film, and a very fine one at that.
Director/Writer Mariana Rondón; Cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa; Starring Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015.