Best known for her TV work on “Insecure” and the “Dear White People” spinoff, Elle Lorraine makes an impressive feature debut as Anna Bludsoe, an aspiring V.J. who is trying to make her music-video dreams come true in 1989 Los Angeles. “Bad Hair” opens with a flashback, when an unfortunate mishap involving her cousin and some hair relaxer results in permanent scarring (emotional and physical). As Anna tries to climb the corporate ladder at a slick communications conglomerate, a new boss — played with campy, vampy deliciousness by Vanessa Williams — makes it clear to her that her natural locks will have to go. She visits a high-end salon, where a new weave changes her life in strange and increasingly alarming ways.
In addition to Lorraine and Williams, “Bad Hair” is blessed by a fabulous cast that includes Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Usher and Blair Underwood as Anna’s uncle, a scholar of African American folklore whose research provides clues to what’s happening to Anna on a follicular level. Bursting with amused affection for early ’90s cool — from balloon pants and neon palettes to steamy R&B videos that Rowland performs to glossy note-perfection — “Bad Hair” is at its most satisfying when it’s sending up the boy bands and pop divas of the era, or giving the side-eye to the hypocrisy and double standards that Black women have endured through centuries of shape-shifting expectations.
But the movie becomes hopelessly muddled and unfocused the more ideas Simien tries to shoehorn in; the body-horror effects that eventually take over are both cheesy and surpassingly unpleasant. Then again, that’s probably the point in a movie that wears its love of genre on its extravagantly shoulder-padded sleeve. Is “Bad Hair” an homage to pop-culture history, an indictment of Eurocentric beauty standards, a critique of assimilation and selling out, or a defense of denigrated African American narrative traditions? Yes. It’s also a rambling, indulgent exercise in gross-out escalation. That’s a lot to carry for any movie, let alone one as lighthearted as this one. “Bad Hair” has style to burn — sometimes literally — but it doesn't quite make the cut.
TV-MA. Available Oct. 23 on Hulu. Contains obscenity, horror-related violence and smoking. 102 minutes.