By David Canfield
January 24, 2020 at 11:38 AM EST
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Bad Hair

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  • TV Show

Having thoroughly skewered contemporary life in his Dear White People franchise, Justin Simien is ready to go back in time. It’s 1989 in Los Angeles, and things are changing — fast. Culture, a music-video TV network geared toward black audiences, is “retooling.” People lose their jobs. Producers shift in focus. The expectations, built by larger (white) economic structures, are brutal: assimilate or leave. At the center of all this, there’s Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), an aspiring host who’s got the smarts, drive, and passion needed to achieve her dreams. There’s only one thing she’s missing.

With Bad Hair, Simien returns to Sundance with his first feature since Dear White People, and it’s an intriguing marker of his creative evolution. Here he works in the mode of genre homage, with visual cues to classics like Body Double and The Shining, and thematic overlap with others such as Carrie and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s a little Jordan Peele in here, too; like Get Out, particularly, this is social horror that veers toward the sharply comic and the politically prescient, but isn’t afraid of a good jump scare.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s exciting to see Simien operate in a new mode: He’s polished from his first film to the Dear White People Netflix series, in which the writer-director has experimented with form and perspective over three acclaimed seasons. The desire to create a psychological thriller stuffed with ideas he cares about — the expectations put on black women to conform to a world that doesn’t and has never allowed them to be themselves — results in ambitious, at times joyous filmmaking. You sense Simien’s pushing into uncharted territory. Yet his distinctive gifts as a director are increasingly relegated to the margins, propelling a narrative that works better in theory than execution.

The world of Culture — or Cult, as wily new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams) rebrands the network — proves immediately rich for exploration. Anna and her colleagues (Lena Waithe, Ashley Blaine Featherson, and others) get the new lay of the land: to make it here, the all-natural look will not cut it. Simien finds resonant moments of grace and beauty in these quieter revelations: gently tracking the experiences of a diverse group of black women as they’re left to decide whether to get ahead or preserve who they really are. It’s a strong metaphor for broader cultural inequities, but more pressingly, made mesmerizing to watch through Simien’s seriocomic lens, alternately sad and funny and plain despairing.

Anna, ready to get out of the assistant trenches, gathers just enough money to buy the weave of her boss’ dreams, and transforms in the eyes of many. She rises at Cult, accordingly, but at a cost: Zora keeps her at an alarming distance and, well, Anna’s weave has a habit of killing people. Simien keeps you off-balance from the beginning by leaning into a hard-genre feel: Kris Bowers’ simmering score clouds ordinary scenes in menace; retro lighting, playful camerawork, and (relatively) cheap effects contribute to a zesty B-movie feel. Before long we’re in an outright horror movie, culminating in a wild sequence that feels in line with the stuff of Peele, Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent, and other rising masters of the category.

But Simien seems to lose Anna in the process, throwing chunks of exposition her way to delineate the larger cultural forces motivating her evil ‘do. This both stalls the momentum and undermines Simien’s feel for cutting satire and crackling dialogue. I missed the interplay at the salon, where Anna and her peers negotiate their place in the world, or the studio, where ace comics Waithe and Featherson and SNL alum Jay Pharoah all steal scenes as hapless cogs in a broken system. Or maybe, you wish Simien would just stay on his star and let her do her thing. Having appeared in Insecure and Netflix’s Dear White People, this is Elle Lorraine’s feature-film debut, and she’s steadily remarkable: assured, intelligent, deadpan, heartbreaking, and finally, terrifying. Her face alone could carry this movie — it’s that expressive, that connective. But in trying to do so much more, Bad Hair ends up delivering a little less. B-

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Bad Hair

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