Coming-of-age stories don’t get much more demoralizing than Bad Hair, from Venezuela, which amounts to an extended power struggle between a single mother and her 9-year-old son that the boy can’t win. On the one hand, it’s hard not to admire writer-director Mariana Rondón, who pulls no punches in her portrait of a woman less concerned with loving and caring for her child than with enforcing societal norms; there’s not a trace of sentimentality in the film’s conception of motherhood, to the point where charges of misogyny would be likely had a male filmmaker been at the helm. On the other hand, though, brrrr! Bad Hair can best be described as expertly depressing—a subcategory of art cinema that seems worth the punishment only when the gloom is counterbalanced by at least a few transcendent moments. No such moments ever surface here, however, apart from a brief fantasy during the closing credits. It’s just a long, slow downward spiral, rendered all the more dispiriting by how mundane it generally appears.

Much like the little kids in classic Iranian cinema (which on the whole is optimistic by comparison), Junior (Samuel Lange) has a modest, seemingly achievable goal as the movie begins: He wants to get his school photograph taken. This costs money, however, and his mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), has recently lost her job as a security guard, for reasons that are never specified. What’s more, Junior desperately wants his photo to present him as a future pop singer, which is apparently impossible in Venezuela unless one has straight hair—unlike Junior, whose deceased father is of African origin. Consequently, he spends much of the film attempting to iron out his thick curls with substances ranging from cooking oil to mayonnaise, while his paternal grandmother (Nelly Ramos) fashions him a “singing suit” that looks suspiciously like a dress. Meanwhile, Marta grows more and more concerned that Junior might be gay, given his dreamy dance moves and propensity to hang around a hunky newsstand vendor (Julio Méndez).

Bad Hair doesn’t depict an abusive parental relationship per se—Marta never beats Junior, and doesn’t even come across as overtly cruel in a wicked-stepmother sort of way. She’s just much more concerned about Junior’s nonconformity than about his happiness, and while films of this sort usually build toward the oppressed child’s bid for freedom/independence/understanding, Rondón is committed to harsh realism, as reflected in the dilapidated public housing unit where the family lives. When Marta brings her former boss (Beto Benites) home and has sex with him where Junior can see, as a means of demonstrating heterosexuality (and getting her job back—two birds, one stone), it’s as tender a gesture as this film can manage. Both Lange and Castillo give fine, entirely credible performances—Castillo, in particular, works hard not to demonize a thoroughly unlikable character—and Rondón has clearly made precisely the film she intended to make. As downers go, however, it’s lacking in catharsis. Life sucks, and then you cave.