When writer/director Justin Simien broke into the indie film scene with his incendiary Sundance hit Dear White People in 2014, it seemed unlikely that it would take a follow-up film 6 years to be released. Instead of moving onto wholly new material, Simien wisely chose to adapt his overstuffed movie into a Netflix series, whose three seasons account for some of the best original content the streaming giant has ever produced. As great as the Dear White People series is, the film world was sorely missing a voice as audacious and brazen as Simien’s, which makes his sophomore effort Bad Hair that much more reason to celebrate. This is an idiosyncratic horror comedy so specific in its influences that it feels like it was made to be enjoyed by maybe a few dozen people total. Fortunately, I would count myself as one of the weirdos in that hypothetically select group.
It’s 1989 Los Angeles and a personal assistant named Anna (Elle Lorraine) is looking to move up the ranks at Culture, a music television network that serves as a stand-in for the real-life BET. Her opportunity comes when the head of the station is replaced by ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams), who sees potential in Anna provided she can look the part of other on-air talent like the impossibly cool Julius (Jay Pharoah). This directive leads her to stylist Virgie (Laverne Cox) and her boutique salon, which has a reputation of transforming frizzy hair into lavish locks like those of pop superstars like the inimitable Sandra (Kelly Rowland). However, Anna gets more than she bargained for when the expensive, sewed-on weave starts to take on a mind of its own and seek revenge on those who have wronged her along the way.
Simien takes this high-concept, campy premise to present all manner of cultural commentary, from the impossibility of interracial beauty standards to the pressures of assimilation and conformity, while never losing its sense of cheeky irreverence in the process. If Spike Lee had directed his own version of Little Shop Of Horrors in the early 1990s, it may have come out something like Bad Hair, though one imagines it wouldn’t have quite the deft satirical bite that Simien once again shows off here. In terms of more recent contemporaries, it’s easy to imagine Jordan Peele having an affinity for similar material and while Bad Hair isn’t quite the instant classic that Get Out was, I would personally classify it as a bigger success than last year’s Us. While Simien isn’t yet the household name that Lee or Peele is, I hope it isn’t long before that changes.
Along with composer Kris Bowers and cinematographer Topher Osborn, Simien crafts an homage to, among many other things, throwback thrillers from revered directors like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter. The look is pitch-perfect, marrying lingering crossfades and ominous Dutch angles with a saturated gritty aesthetic that truly makes the movie look like it was shot on film in the 70s or 80s. The introduction of the killer wig and the slow reveal of its nefarious nature melds both the body horror elements of a David Cronenberg picture with the Japanese horror frights of something along the lines of Ju-On: The Grudge. By the time the haywire third act comes into focus, the film most closely resembles socially-conscious sci-fi like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Besides the exceedingly clever script penned by Simien, this stylistic melting pot is held together best by a terrific lead performance from newcomer Elle Lorraine. No matter how outlandish the storyline gets or how many genres the movie invokes, she proves that she’s game to bob and weave as necessary to keep the audience invested. She sells the “beauty is pain” principle best during the salon scene where the hair extensions are being grafted to her scalp or, as a colleague puts it, “sewing someone’s dead energy into their head.” Naturally, Simien has a deeper metaphors and symbolism attached to the concept of stealing what is someone else’s and wearing it as your own, which are best for the viewer to discover for themselves. It just came out last week but Bad Hair already seems destined for cult classic status and rightfully so.
Score – 4/5
New movies this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is The Craft: Legacy, a sequel to the 1996 supernatural horror film starring Cailee Spaeny and Gideon Adlon about a new group of high school students who form a coven of witches.
Streaming on Netflix is His House, a thriller starring Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu about a Sudanese refugee couple who struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.
Coming to theaters is Come Play, a horror thriller starring Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr. about a monster who haunts a non-verbal autistic young boy along with his family and friends through various technological devices.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup