First off, this is nothing about baby poo. The “nappy” in Haifaa al-Mansour’s soapy new-start rom-com is the one Sanaa Lathan’s character sees on her own head – an untameable afro that represents everything wrong with her old life. There’s more to it than that of course, but not a lot.
Lathan is Violet Johnston, a successful Atlanta ad executive, a rich socialite and (thanks to her monster of a mother), an obsessive control freak who measures the orderliness of her life by the straightness of her perfect hair. When her dullard of a doctor boy friend (Britain’s Ricky Whittle, taking two steps back after American Gods) gives her a Chihuahua instead of an engagement ring, she breaks things off, gets drunk, and shaves her head.
From here on out, things get a bit Eat Pray Love – with Violet going on a personal journey of rediscovery that sees quitting her job, dropping her OCD habits and falling in love with a humble, scruffy hairdresser (She’s Gotta Have It’s Lyriq Bent). New hair, new woman and some very, very old rom-com clichés.
The hair is a metaphor, sure, but only just – as it’s pretty much the only thing anyone in the film talks about. The script handles its important messages about female empowerment and African American identity in the clumsiest way possible – with Bent’s character literally introducing himself to one woman with the line, “Your hair told me everything I needed to know”, which would have been a much better title for the film.
Besides the script and the story and the clichés and most of the acting, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Nappily Ever After. It’s a perfectly okay rom-com that feels like it was made to be mildly smiled at, casually enjoyed and then instantly forgotten. What makes it so surprising is that it comes from director Haifaa al-Mansour.
Saudi Arabia’s first female director, al-Mansour got noticed in the West for 2012’s Wadjda – a confident, urgent little social drama that made a loud enough noise at film festivals and award shows around the world to get important equality issues heard in her home country. Following it up last year with the patchy (but still interesting) Mary Shelley, al-Mansour seems to have made a pretty dramatic U-turn with Nappily Ever After.
In her defence, there are elements of the script that must have appealed to a director so clearly interested in modern gender politics. The moment when Venus shaves her head would have worked brilliantly as a standalone short film – Lathan’s wonderful performance in front of the mirror (shaving her head for real), silently going from desperation and sadness to joy and liberation, says so much more that the rest of the film even tries to say.
In a different pair of hands, Nappily Ever After might have even felt as vital for African American women as Wadjda did for Saudi girls – but this definitely isn’t the empowering, feminist rom-com that Hollywood needs at the moment.
Just as Violet quickly comes to realise about her own hair, at the end of the day, it’s only a bit of fluff.