'Bad Hair' Review: 'Dear White People' Director Delivers A Horror Thriller For The Ages [Sundance 2020]

Writer/director Justin Simien premiered his feature film debut Dear White People at Sundance in 2014, and later went on to adapt that movie into a Netflix streaming series. Now he's back at the festival with something completely new: an '80s-set horror thriller about a killer weave.

It's 1989, and Anna (Elle Lorraine) is a down-on-her-luck assistant at Rock Music Video, an MTV-style network based in Los Angeles. All of her best ideas are swiped by others and passed off as their own, leaving Anna behind on her rent and constantly overlooked at work. But a shake-up at the company results in the network executive (James Van Der Beek) installing a new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams), a former model with bomb hair who rules the office with an iron fist. Zora makes sweeping changes, shortening the channel's name from "Culture" to "Cult," riling up Anna's friends (Lena Waithe, Yaani King Mondschein), and giving Anna her long-desired shot – so long as the up-and-comer gets a weave at a high-class salon called Virgie's, overseen by its mercurial owner/hairdresser (Laverne Cox).

Anna accepts, her ambition outweighing her desire to stay true to herself. "Clients swear this stuff is magic," Virgie says about her library of weave options, and in one of the movie's most graphic scenes, the screen fills with a close up of Anna's scalp during the procedure as hair, hooks, and blood flow in equal amounts. It's a disturbing, gruesome scene made all the more painful by Lorraine's tears and a prologue which revealed that she previously had a bad experience with her hair when she was a child. Anna wakes up with long, shiny locks reminiscent of superstar singer Sandra's (Kelly Rowland, in full Janet Jackson mode), and quickly begins getting noticed at work and rising through the ranks. The only downside? Her hair now seems to have a mind of its own – and a taste for blood.

The film begins with a quote from author James Baldwin: "American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it." Simien uses that idea as a springboard for the origins of the titular "bad hair": there are ancient forces at play here which have laid dormant for years because, as Anna's father explains, conquerors don't write much about the cultures they conquer. "Superstitions are tributaries to rivers and oceans of truth about who you really are," he warns, and gives her a Babadook-looking book of stories written generations earlier by slaves – stories about characters like The Moss-Haired Girl, a slave who uses enchanted moss to make a wig. Anna, who sees herself as a pragmatist, initially brushes these stories off, but soon realizes they may be her only hope for understanding what's actually happening to her.

Before the premiere, Simien said he made this film to "interrogate a system that is obsessed with black culture but doesn't give a fuck about black lives," and you can tell this movie has a ton on its mind. It's about ambition first and foremost, but it's also about the image we present to the world and navigating its societal pressures. The writer/director tends to put the camera close to his actors, giving the film a hint of claustrophobia that's effective as the world closes in around Anna and she slowly loses control of what's atop her head. While the Dear White People movie was confident in its ideas, it felt more like a story with a great script than a genuinely great film. Simien has since used the (largely excellent) Dear White People show to experiment and expand his style, and you can tell that Bad Hair comes from a more confident filmmaker overall. He feels at home throughout the whole movie, whether he's slipping a visual barrier between Anna and her former boss during a confrontation or depicting full-on monster movie mayhem as the horror elements ratchet up as the film progresses.

In many ways, Bad Hair is the heir apparent to Get Out. That's not an attempt to be reductive or to group certain filmmakers in a box, but more of an observation about the way both movies use the tropes of the genre as a conduit for topical ideas about what it means to live in the real world. Plus, they're both about forces that are trying to appropriate black culture and literally take over black bodies for nefarious purposes. And like Jordan Peele, Simien wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve, paying homage to horror films that have come before and one of his biggest inspirations, Stanley Kubrick: there are some major The Shining vibes happening in Kris Bowers' score, in how the protagonist's eerie dream sequence seems to stab its way into the fabric of the movie, and even in a few shots of an ax late in the story.

While there are plenty of jump scares throughout, the film is ultimately more campy than traditionally scary. This isn't like an Ari Aster film, where every frame is soaked in dread – Simien may be making a horror movie, but he's on an entirely different playing field. Williams absolutely luxuriates in her villainous role, Waithe and Saturday Night Live veteran Jay Pharaoh earn their share of laughs in supporting roles, and Dear White People cast member Ashley Blaine Featherson is solid as Williams' buttoned-up assistant, but the movie really belongs to Elle Lorraine, who, in her first starring movie role, carries the whole film on her back and makes the case that she should be a major player in Hollywood in the years to come. Simien has a knack for casting; he launched Tessa Thompson to stardom in 2014, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Lorraine garner that same level of acclaim after her work here.

Bad Hair is overflowing with ideas, and even though it doesn't devote the time to fully explore all of them, its ambition is unquestionably impressive. It's the type of movie that actually deserves the inevitable half-hour video essays that will be made about its themes, and I can't wait to read all of the longform pieces it will inspire. It challenges its audience without talking down, asking us to keep up as it eventually ramps up to its wild, "see-it-to-believe-it" climax. Part Brian De Palma flick, part Invasion of the Body Snatchers, part Dracula, and part Stepford Wives, Bad Hair filters its influences through Simien's hyper-specific passions and unique sensibilities to become a singular horror comedy from a singular filmmaker.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10