Mahalia is a shy young Black girl who takes ballet, where she is teased by other classmates Abigail and Daisy for her quiet demeanor and her hair, among other things.
On the eve of a class photoshoot, Mahalia’s mother Anika arranged for Mahalia to straighten her hair at her local salon, hoping to raise her confidence. Her new hair gives her an initial boost at first, but she discovers that in the end, not much has changed.
Directed by Emilie Mannering and Carmine Pierre-Dufour from a script by Pierre-Dufour, this exquisitely rendered short drama has the surface trappings of feminine innocence and beauty, with its pristine images of ballet dance, girls in tutus and leaves swaying in a gentle rain. But underneath the lovely, almost tender visuals is an undertow of melancholy and sadness, mirroring how the main character’s spirit is buried under the demands of beauty and conformity to a narrow standard.
The storytelling is spare and discerning, focused on Mahalia, who is almost always the subject of each frame. The composition of the images stages conversations and actions around Mahalia off-screen or in the margins, giving us the sense that life is happening to or around the young girl. Viewers are also focused on Mahalia’s often silent emotions, thoughts and reactions, as she absorbs the ideas and assumptions of the world around her.
These ideas and assumptions are full of difficult messages for a young Black girl to absorb. There’s the unintended but blunt racism in the description of Mahalia’s hair by her ballet classmate, which has both an innocence and casual cruelty befitting the young children they are. But perhaps more difficult are the unspoken assumptions that the grownups hold. Anika’s offer to straighten Mahalia’s hair is well-intentioned, but the praise and compliments she gets after she undergoes the laborious, time-consuming process also implies that maybe Mahalia’s hair wasn’t pretty or acceptable in the first place.
In such a spare, elegant film, performances take on added weight, and young actor Kaiyonni Banton-Renner carries the narrative with a steady grace and sensitivity. Reserved yet open-hearted, she plays Mahalia with a natural vulnerability and intelligence, which makes her particularly affected by the unspoken messages around her. She’s so innately sympathetic that it’s hard to see her absorb the underlying idea that her hair isn’t beautiful and must be fixed — a message that affects her to her core.
“Mahalia Melts in the Rain” is a poetic title, but like the visuals, writing and performances, the film’s beauty disguises quiet yet tremendous pain and sadness. Underneath the refined charm of the short’s look and the careful elegance of the storytelling, the story itself is a gentle yet keenly observed role that hair plays in the experience of Black people, and Black women especially.
We see how a lovely little girl learns to doubt her worth and lose her confidence from the hurtful, often racist messages — both overt and subtle — she absorbs in the world around her. It is often said that children notice everything — but the stakes become higher when “everything” has ideas that question the worthiness of a child’s very being, which are often taken in at such formative ages. It demands more vigilance and rigor to change, if only to protect the tender hearts and minds of the most vulnerable.