Pelo Malo is a Moving Must-Watch

Overview: The story of nine-year-old Junior whose obsession with straightening his hair leads to him suffering homophobic abuse. Artefactos S.F; 2013; Rated R; 93 minutes.

Identity: Pelo Malo is a tale of identity, both how one finds their inner identity and how the rest of the world perceives it. Junior, whose father passed away when he was younger, lives to support his emotionally unstable mother and baby brother. Despite being nine years of age, he cooks dinner and cleans up after his recently unemployed mother. His father is said to be Afro-Latino, which is why Junior’s hair is curly. His mother does her utmost to sustain this curly hair of his – one can infer that this is because it reminds her of her deceased husband. The problem is Junior lives around many white Latinos and, thus, craves their straight hair as a means of fitting in. His identity – one that revolves around wanting to be a dancer – is suppressed due to his mother’s depression and his community’s racism. One of the most heartbreaking moments arrives early in the first act when Junior loses himself in the moment and begins to dance expressively. His mother catches a glance of it and convinces herself that he’s gay. This supposed discovery leads to an even more exhaustive suppression of identity.

El Barrio: It may follow the typical construct of a Venezuelan film – a struggling family in the underbelly of the country – but director Mariana Rondón does a terrific job in telling a story rarely heard in Venezuelan shores. She utilises her directorial voice to achieve two things: it is an immediate criticism of the country’s homophobia while also being another strong entry into Hispanic queer cinema. After all, Latinos have often been pioneers of queer cinema. Unfortunately, it is born from the venomous and violent homophobia that plagues many of our countries. Rondón subverts the theme of poverty, since the story revolves more around sexuality and race. She uses the setting, instead, to express poverty. It’s nuanced and calm rather than being the crux and explosiveness of the story.

Dreams and Aspirations: Throughout Pelo Malo are two types of people. The adults, who are frustrated at their lives and how little they have achieved, and the children, unfazed by their situation and instead invigorated with hope. This is presented through Junior’s dancing and willingness to learn; it is also evident in his best friend’s dream to one day become Miss Venezuela. It is through the children that Pelo Malo excels. Not only are their performances heartwarming and genuine, Rondón allows them to be children. Her script doesn’t emphasise an expansive vocabulary, instead focusing more on their actions and small interactions. Her ability to direct children is the reason why she is regarded so highly in Venezuela. In Pelo Malo, we are treated to her finest curation of child characters.

Sexuality: Rondón makes one thing obvious, both in the film and subsequent interviews: it does not matter if Junior is gay or not. What matters is that he is a human being and wanting to be himself should not lead to a life of abuse and disdain. Junior only smiles when he manages to straighten his hair. That’s two smiles throughout the 93 minutes of runtime. This nuanced detail is heartbreaking upon inspection. Every time Junior manages to straighten his hair, he immediately runs to wash it under water before his mother realises.

A Mother’s Touch: Junior’s mother plays an integral role in the film. While she attempts to provide for her broken family, she also yearns for male love. We often see her flaunting her body in front of the mirror and seeking sexual company. In this perceived selfishness comes disregard for her children, in particular Junior. She verbally assaults him, mocking his dancing and accusing him of being gay. In one instance, she is seen grabbing and hurling him to the floor. Rondón’s directing, though, never judges the mother. Instead, we are given insight into her grief and how she is struggling to provide as a single parent while also yearning for love. Pelo Malo is a film that avoids judgment, be that of the poverty in the barrio, Junior’s sexuality or his mother’s ignorance. It presents this cavalcade of characters and allows us to judge for ourselves. If not for how under-seen Pelo Malo is, I’d be inferring that Barry Jenkins borrowed many visual cues from it for Moonlight. That’s a compliment of the highest order to both movies.

Overall: Pelo Malo is a tough watch but one that is necessary. It is riddled with nuance that leaves those impassioned with analysing film salivating at the mouth. It is a rare, genuine insight into Venezuelan culture without any sensationalism, boasting an ending for the ages. Directed beautifully, with a couple of knockout performances from Samuel Lange Zambrano (Junior) and Samantha Castillo (the mother), Pelo Malo is unmissable and one of the century’s finest Hispanic films.

Grade: A-