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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Mixed emotions in ‘Bad Hair’

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In the end, on Facebook, Nicola recently summed up her lifelong strategy in a disarmingly straightforward way: “I am a fucken novice.” If that sounds like the subtext of Bad Hair — the title of the bracing new documentary about Anglo-Quebec oddballs, which just won the audience award at the Hamptons International Film Festival — well, it is. A cryptic, affectionate look at the native culture of this mesmerizing country, the film cuts between mysterious identities and misdirection: In a heart-wrenching scene, Wanda comes on to the stage of one of her children’s school talent shows (in a western dress, with her long, glamorous hair dangling in a chignon) and is actually promoted as the school’s belle.

But as director Jonathan Demme, formerly of the Talking Heads and Melvin & Howard fame, once observed, you have to admire a filmmaker who pretends to be doing one thing, at the same time as pulling off another. To this end, there is also a gay couple (David and Graham) and a well-publicized old rocker (in a gold lamé cowboy hat and a gaudy blond coif, roundly lampooned by Lou Reed) who seem to be both more famous and more alone than the rest of the film’s high-tax, working-class cast.

Demme keeps the picture in a downward spiral. We climb aboard the train, meet the colorful characters, and are adrift, musing on the documentary’s cryptic aims: Is it a portrait of a vanishing culture? A portrait of individuals pretending to not care about their artistic obsessions? An indiscriminate parade of phantoms? To what ends?

And yet, what’s wonderful about Bad Hair is that it has nothing to do with the answers that Demme and his co-directors, Barry Avrich and Juliette Towhidi, are supposed to offer. There’s a touching moment in the film when the father of a young aboriginal girl asks David to lose his guitar. It isn’t something to lose — that, of course, is the symbolic coup of Bad Hair. Rather, what the movie is about is loss — the tenderest of things — and a grieving sense of loss for a reality in which we are to choose one life and pursue it endlessly, and yet it’s not always easy.

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