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New Release Review - Pelo Malo

A single mother tries to quash her young son's effeminate ways.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Mariana Rondón

Starring: Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo, Beto Benites, Nelly Ramos



Mariana Rondon's Pelo Malo, which translates to English as Bad Hair, does for contemporary Venezuala what last year's Leviathan did for Putin's Russia, using the struggles of one family to slyly comment on the nation as a whole. It's also the latest in a lengthening line of child-centred social dramas, following recent successes like Wadjda, The Kid With a Bike and The Rocket.
The 'bad hair' of the title belongs to nine-year-old Junior (Zambrano) a mixed-race boy living with his mother (Castillo) and infant brother in a Corbusier style tower block located in one of the many slums of Caracas. Junior has inherited his curly afro hair from his father, who the film implies, without ever explicitly stating, was a victim of gang warfare. But Junior's not happy with his mop, and tries several attempts to straighten it in order to resemble his favourite pop singer. His mother, Marta, is terrified that Junior's obsession with his appearance means he may be gay, something highly frowned upon within her culture, constantly bothering the local doctor into checking on her son's condition. The boy's paternal grandmother, Carmen (Ramos), adds fuels to Marta's fire by indulging his effeminate ways.
The gender politics of Latin America will prove shocking to viewers from less conservative locales, with Marta's obsession with her son's potential homosexuality coming across as a form of insanity (she fears he may even be growing a tail), but the movie makes it all too clear that she's merely a product of a culture grounded in hyper-Catholicism and machismo. After losing her security guard job, Marta applies for another firm, but is rebuffed on the grounds of her sex and offered a cleaning job instead. To get her old job back, Marta sleeps with her employer. What's shocking about her decision is how matter of fact her choice is, and she evens uses it as way to introduce her son to heterosexuality, forcing the boy to watch her in the act.
As with most South American movies, the acting here is top-notch. Zambrano is a revelation in the lead role and really sells his sense of confusion as he is torn between the agendas of his mother and grandmother. As the latter, Ramos is a joy to watch - and listen to! A Nina Simone lookalike in both face and voice, every line she speaks is musical, and one of the highlights of the movie comes in watching her introduce Junior to an old pop tune that you'll find rattling around your head long after the film ends.
Pelo Malo climaxes in heart-breaking fashion, a damning indictment of the compromises some must make to 'fit in' with society, but stick around for the end credits for an uplifting fantasy sequence. 




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