Marta (Samantha Castillo), a single working mother in lower class Venezuela, is struggling to keep things together. Her husband recently walked away, leaving her with an infant and a nine-year-old—Junior (Samuel Lange)—that is struggling with identity and gender issues, being biracial and having an effeminate predisposition. It's a sticky issue that Marta, a woman with little educational background desperately trying to gain employment after being let go from her security guard position, simply doesn't have the patience or the socio-cultural background to tackle.
While she's off trying to win back the respect of her morally questionable ex-employer, Junior fantasizes about being a singer with straight hair. Every moment that Marta's back is turned, Junior is trying various techniques—involving simple brushing, mayonnaise and cooking oil—to straighten his hair, hoping that his school picture (one that he doesn't have the money to pay for) will portray him as a performer with hair that mirrors that of his lighter-skinned mother.
Already living at the periphery of society, barely able to obtain a job or food to feed her two children, Marta's projected homophobia, yelling at her son when he demonstrates feminine behaviour, while distressing, also stems from a maternal need to protect. Knowing that her son is already marginalized by his mixed race and low income background, her concern is mainly what a lifetime of homosexuality might do to him.
Writer-director Mariana Rondón approaches this material with an alarming lack of sentimentality. Bad Hair's neo-realist sensibilities make Marta a difficult character to identify with or even approach with rational thought. Her protective rage, despite being damaging to a boy confused by—and not even entirely aware of—his identity, is increasingly problematic, culminating in a well-intentioned but wholly misguided effort to take her doctor's advice and introduce a traditional heterosexual coital relationship and a demonstration of male performance into his life, likely scarring him for eternity.
Castillo's performance is raw and unembellished, sizzling with a persisting anxiety and omnipresent, thinly veiled, anger. This is a woman left to her own devices scrambling to keep things together, forced into a corner by her limited choices. Not having the money to hire a babysitter, she's forced to leave Junior with his grandmother (on his father's side) (Nelly Ramos), who embraces and encourages his budding homosexuality, or at least metrosexuality, by straightening his hair and teaching him to sing.
Rondón's ability to balance these two worlds, capturing Junior's confusion and innocence as well as Marta's worldly defeat and desperation, is remarkable. Though her style is rough and naturalistic, the intimacy she establishes with her performances allows us to inhabit their very disparate realities simultaneously.
There's no effort to simplify the topic either. Ideally, Marta would learn to accept her son for who he is, but the prospects for his future, considering his current socio-economic status, may resultantly be bleak. Similarly, while the politically correct stance would be to suggest Junior was born with homosexual tendencies, Rondón doesn't completely ignore the possibility that it could be an environmental attribute stemming from Junior's identification with a strong mother trapped in a loveless relationship.
This avoidance of cutesy political posturing and seemingly progressive solutions makes thorny what could easily be a twee narrative about embracing difference. Though every character within this engrossing human drama wants to live in a world where Junior's race, economic background and sexual orientation don't matter, they're far too accustomed to the harsh realities of an oft-uncaring world to idealize the likely reality of the situation.