Set against the backdrop of music television in 1989 L.A., Bad Hair is a film build around a pretty solid emotional and satirical core. It follows Anna (Elle Lorraine), an aspiring media personality and producer at a television network called “Culture,” that largely courts a Black demographic. Except the owners of the network, though, want to expand the channel’s reach and so they promptly replace longtime head of the network Maxine (Michelle Hurd) with ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams). As writer-director Justin Simien’s characters bluntly acknowledge aloud, Zora is lighter-skinned than Maxime, and the former’s hair is straight, in sharp contrast to the braids favored by the latter. This conspicuous and culturally loaded change in image at the top quickly trickles down through the network, as Anna realizes that her only hope of advancing at the now rebranded channel is to make herself over in Zora’s dictated image — an imperative that leads her to an expensive salon and a painfully grafted-on weave with something of a malevolent mind of its own.
And similar to that weave, Simien himself has a lot on his mind. The central horror-movie metaphor — the weave as a parasitic organism, the expectations white culture puts on black women personified as a bloodthirsty fashion choice — cleverly riffs on the questions of self-image, conformity, and assimilation that he similarly raised in his previous film/directional debut Dear White People. And Lorraine’s central performance helps give the film a sympathetic dramatic shape to those issues, in a role that’s more nuanced than the average scream-queen heroine. Yet Bad Hair is also lumpy and uneven (even though the film has supposedly gone through a heavy reedit since its premier at Sundance in January). Its premise often feels like a short film that’s been stretched to feature length, struggling to balance its thin relationships with its supernatural components. The film kind of comes off like a solid, perverse logline that Simien never quite built up. While admirably unwieldy, Bad Hair slowly becomes more and more scattershot; its ambitions provocative but it’s mostly just repetitions on theme.
Bad Hair is available to stream on Hulu
For a litmus test on whether Kajillionaire will spark a pastel delight within you, you’ll have to look towards the foam. It’s one of the more aggressively surreal elements in the latest film from Miranda July, as every evening a flood of pink foam leaks through the interior wall of the abandoned office our protagonists call home, prompting a mad scramble as they grab buckets, shovels, and whatever else is within reach to scoop up the mess. This is the eccentric world of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) and her unsuccessful con artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). But the real question with films that luxuriate in quirk like this, is always one of underlying emotion. When there’s honest love and empathy behind it, the most bizarre characterization can be endearing; done with a mocking intent, it becomes a freak show. Kajillionaire is of the former, telling a story about the desire for simple human connection through the character of Old Dolio, a childlike twenty-six-year-old who’s as strange as her name. (She was named after a homeless person who won the lottery, in hopes that she’d be written into his will. It didn’t work.) Old Dolio is both a child and a social experiment to her parents Robert (Jenkins) and Theresa (Winger), who raised her without birthday parties or pancake breakfasts or the “tender feelings.” The Dyne family has split the meager returns of their comically petty scams three ways since Old Dolio was old enough to participate, from returning stolen gift certificates for cash to stealing leftover airplane snacks.
Old Dolio is starved for attention and affection, and that need turns into a family crisis when the Dynes meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) while flying cross-country on another one of their odd plots. Melanie is a bit of a shapeshifter herself, claiming to be an assistant to an ophthalmologist when she really works at a glasses store in the mall. Compared to that of the Dynes, her lifestyle is downright normal, even boring. And the stability of her life is intriguing to Old Dolio, who absorbs statements from Melanie like, “Most happiness comes from dumb things,” with the awe of a kid sitting at the feet of their idol. Rodriguez is a stabilizing force for the film in general, an everywoman whose raised eyebrows and incredulous questions imply the existence of a larger, more recognizable world beyond the Dynes’ odd little realm. Like many of the character motivations, her reasons for essentially adopting Old Dolio and teaching her how “normal” families do things are sometimes vague. But the chemistry between Rodriguez and Wood is undeniable, and Rodriguez’s more naturalistic performance balances out her co-star’s affected shuffling and deep, gravely monotone. Wood’s performance is sensitive, but it’s also silly at times. And that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as it helps with some scenes’ underlying interactions (even though the film’s biggest bump is some of its shaky third act that involves a not quite pulled off romantic connection between characters).
Midway through the film, a moneymaking scheme brings Melanie and the Dynes to the house of a dying older man. Hoping to pass in peace, he asks Old Dolio if they can clink silverware together and talk softly, creating a soothing place for his final moments. Unfazed, Old Dolio agrees, and Melanie sits down at the piano playing an aimless tune. Theresa pretends to serve imaginary cake, and Robert and Old Dolio scrape forks against empty plates, commenting on the delicious flavor of the invisible dessert. For a moment, they all live happily in their own simulation of domestic fulfillment. They’re actually there to steal the old man’s PIN, and are pretending to be the children who aren’t there for him when he needs them. But if they fake it well enough, the warm feelings bubble up anyway. And as a whole, Kajillionaire is a film that wonders if that might be enough. Balancing whimsy and melancholy, Kajillionaire‘s sharp observations on family ties and its breezy edge float the film into an at times delightful light.
Kajillionaire is available on VOD