SUNDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! The desire to succeed and fit in leads to insatiable consequences in Justin Simien’s new feature, Bad Hair. Set in 1989 Los Angeles, the movie follows Anna (Elle Lorraine) in her journey up the corporate ladder at a BET-esque television company. After deciding to get a flashy new look, her hair grows a mind of its own. It then leaves destruction, mayhem, and casualties in its wake. Simien’s film is heavily laced with wicked social commentary, though it might have a bit too much to say, resulting in an intermittently hilarious send-up of 80’s horror schlock. The jokes that don’t work leave the product burdensome at a few points.
The hierarchy of hair and skin tone is firmly established from the first frame of the film with traditional black 80’s styles giving way to the length and flow of weaves, and we know where she is headed. Anna enters a company-wide meeting to learn that new boss and ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), has taken the reigns and things will be going in a flashy new direction. Meek Anna has to decide whether to conform in order to succeed or fall to the wayside and lose her apartment.
“…her hair grows a mind of its own. It then leaves destruction, mayhem, and casualties in its wake.”
Gunning for the associate producer role, Anna takes the advice of her new boss and visits Virgie (Laverne Cox) for extensions. “I don’t usually let people touch my hair,” Anna demures before enduring excruciating pain. Cox is wonderfully vampy as the mysterious hairstylist, and frankly, we don’t get enough of her. Soon things take off for Anna, but her sentient hair pulls an Audrey 2 and demands more and more blood for future success.
With a keen sense of time and place, Simien perfectly captures the trends of the late 80s fashion and music accentuating the absurd need to conform. Inside jokes are peppered throughout every scene of Bad Hair, thanks to the flawless production, art, and set designs by Scott Kuzio, Alex Gaines, and Tamar Barnoon, respectively. I’ve never seen so many vintage Apple computers in an office setting. Positive notes are also due for costume designer Ceci. Putting Vanessa Williams in a banana-yellow outfit with shoulder pads was genius. Additionally, the cast is reliable and does an excellent job, clearly having a great time with the premise.
In the end, though, all the en-pointe nuances in the world can’t salvage a weighty script. While the first act is slow but promising, the second and third acts don’t move any faster. We expect an uptick in pace when the hair begins picking off all who wrong Anna or get in her way. Instead, the pace remains stagnant, and we are only given flashes of brilliance here and there. With a few trims here and there, Bad Hair could have been a savage satire of the 1980s.
Bad Hair screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.