One of the more frustrating ordeals our society subjects children to is the way we categorize their behavior into personality types we’ve created before they’ve had any time to figure out who they are for themselves. How pointless it is to tell a girl who doesn’t like dresses that she’s a “tomboy,” or a boy who likes dolls and dresses that he’s acting “effeminate” before they’re old enough to know what those labels mean. Maybe it’s a phase, maybe it’s not. And if it’s not, by making a kid feel somehow guilty for their inborn nature at such an early age, all you’re doing is teaching them that they need to hide who they truly are from the world and from themselves.
Such scrutiny defines the life of Bad Hair (Pelo Malo)’s Junior, a nine-year-old boy living in bustling Caracas with his single mother and her infant child. Every aspect of Junior’s life is up for judgment by those around him: the way he dances, his fixation on having long, straight hair instead of his naturally thick curls, the way his gaze often lingers on the older teen who runs the nearby grocery stand, leading everyone around him to assume that he’s gay. His mother fears that it’s her fault for raising him without a father figure, and she often takes extreme measures to “correct” his behavior. Junior’s paternal grandmother, meanwhile, is more accepting of his apparent orientation. This initially causes him to enjoy spending time with her more than his mother as she agrees to straighten his hair and dance with him, but as she imposes other activities that she considers gay, which Junior doesn’t like, his response is to abandon everything that has caused him to be pigeonholed in the first place.
Writer-director Mariana Rondón does strongly imply Junior’s attraction to men via the way he courts the attention of the aforementioned grocery clerk and stares at the older boy’s masculine, handsome features, but Junior lacks the societal context to understand that this may be the beginning of sexual attraction. Because he’s still a child, his natural reaction is to reject anything that makes him seem different, from his hair to his budding sexuality. Yet distant as he is, the clerk is also the closest thing to a father figure in Junior’s life (save for fleeting glimpses of Hugo Chávez, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time in which the movie is set), and is the only person who doesn’t seem to judge him. Sensitive, sometimes funny and often heartbreaking, Bad Hair is a fascinating investigation into Venezuela’s—and the world’s—complicated relationship with masculinity, and the awful trauma we inflict on our children by prematurely judging their natural behavior.
RAISING VICTOR VARGAS (Amazon)
Raising Victor Vargas tells the story of a macho, sexually aware yet sensitive young man as he comes of age in New York’s Lower East side. Though he never battles the preconceived notions of appropriate behavior based on orientation and gender in the same way as Pelo Malo’s Junior, he is equally misunderstood by his family, primarily by an immigrant grandmother who refuses to see his budding sexuality as anything but misbehavior. Though conventional in some ways, Raising Victor Vargas is among the more honest a depiction of teenage sexuality out there.
BILLY ELLIOT (Amazon)
“It’s not for poofs,” budding dancer Billy tells his economically and socially insecure father, a miner in Thatcher-era England, in defense of the boy’s newfound means of self-expression. Though it would be easy for the film to paint the father’s reaction as hateful, it’s based more in fear and concern than in bigotry. Though the dancing and T. Rex soundtrack steal the spotlight, the film is as much the father’s journey as it is Billy’s.