In 'Pelo Malo,' boy's hair issues spark tensions with mother

'Pelo Malo' reveals the intimate but tense relationship between a boy and his mother @latimesmovies

"Pelo Malo" means "bad hair" in Spanish, and it's what consumes much of the psychic energy of the boy at the center of this film, on the cusp of adolescence, living in a small apartment with his mother and baby brother in Venezuela.

Junior (Samuel Lange) and his mom, Marta (Samantha Castillo), a tough and desperate woman, are struggling to get by as she attempts to get back her security guard job. Junior is on school break, and all he longs for is to have his kinky, curly hair straightened for his school ID picture.

He doesn't fit in with the boys, and he feels more at ease with his female companions — the neighbor girl and his grandmother (the mother of his deceased father and a woman from whom Marta is loathe to accept help). Junior's quirky behavior and lack of masculine conformity brings up a wave of homophobic venom in Marta, and she wildly overcompensates for the lack of a father figure in his life.

Whether Junior is gay isn't clear and doesn't really matter. The details of their circumstances are not as important in "Pelo Malo" as the intimate but tense relationship between mother and son.

The film is anchored by two riveting performances from Castillo and Lange, whose characters are searching for themselves and feeling increasingly desperate as they fail. Castillo is wild-eyed and near feral as the flailing matriarch, and Lange gives a steely performance beyond his years as the determined Junior. The result is a strong, moving film from Venezuelan writer-director Mariana Rondón.

"Pelo Malo"

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour and 33 minutes.

Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

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