Pelo Malo teases out themes of identity and belonging through Junior, a 9-year-old boy with an unusual passion, and his mother whose life of violence and poverty means she can’t understand his alien desires. If the set up sounds familiar, let’s do some expectation-management. No, this will not turn out to be a South American Billy Elliot, no matter how much you might want it to. Put that thought to bed, it won’t serve you well here. This isn’t a world of sugared pills – it’s unfiltered reality, beautifully and confidently explored by director Mariana Rondón.
At the core of it all is the fear that Marta (Samantha Castillo), Junior’s mother, feels for her son as she observes his apparently effeminate behavior. He’s completely at odds with the violent, macho values of the failing Venezuelan high-rise environment that led her husband to his untimely end. Junior wants to straighten his curly (and actually quite bueno) hair and restyle himself as a slick, clean-cut crooner for the upcoming school I.D. photo. It’s a project he adopts with increasing fixation, but Marta simply can’t get on board with his obsession with his appearance. She criticizes his dancing, extinguishes his singing, puts a brutal stop to one of the few relationships that nurtures Junior – a timid friendship with Mario, the teenager who runs the grocery stall. It’s bruising stuff.
But Rondón isn’t in the business of judging her characters. Told through intimate, docu-style direction, Pelo Malo exposes its characters in an honest and almost uncomfortably objective light. You’re right in there, amongst them as they clash and scrape against one other, and in the harsh light they reveal their flaws so nakedly that it feels intrusive. It’s a bold and effective move.
But the discomfort is exactly what the story – and it’s honey-comb-high-rise setting too – deserves. Exhausting poverty is the underlying force, and we see it all – though Rondón never romanticises or even politicises it. It’s a canvas for an essentially tragic tale about self-discovery and love, and it shapes the complex personalities within it.
Marta is as much a product of her environment as Junior is a victim of it. The message is pretty clear; here, identity isn’t a choice for anyone. While Marta loses her job and struggles to put food in her kids’ mouths she switches between her own set of externally imposed identities: security guard or sex object. She’s only unfiltered emotionally when she’s naked.
The themes are neatly laid out in the early moments of the film, in one of many smartly crafted vignettes. Junior and his closest friend, a neighbourhood girl his age, play a warped game of “I spy” using the inhabitants of the stacking-box balconies of the next high-rise as subjects. Boxes are literal and figurative, as the innocents assign them one-dimensional identities – a black man, the woman who talks to herself, the married couple.
In this context, we desperately want this strange and sparky little person to become the shiny-haired pop-singer he longs to be. Played with guileless charm by Samuel Lange, it’s impossible not to be fully invested in Junior’s fantasy. But as he pursues it, Marta only becomes colder and more unforgiving, and Rondón leverages this conflict to crank up tension to sickening heights in the final act. It wouldn’t be off the mark entirely to suggest that at times it’s too unrelenting, too cruel and exhausting.
Of course, there are some genuinely delightful moments; Junior’s grandmother is more accommodating of his desires (albeit for selfish ends). She finds him a crooner role-model, makes him a suit fit for a South American superstar and even teaches him to dance – which makes for one of the film’s most uplifting scenes. And of course Mario, at the grocery stand, shows him unquestioning kindness. But relief is brief.
The fact is, we’re watching a little boy balance his desires; on the one hand, to be the person he longs to be, and on the other to conform for the sake of the unreliable love of his mother. Presumably by this point you’re not expecting a saccharine outcome – with good reason. And oddly, while it’s all you long for, you’re left admiring Rondón for sticking to her guns. It would have been easy to slip us something sweet – but instead she unsentimentally presents us with an honest story, very much worth the telling.