'Good Hair' (Roadside Attractions)When was the last time you were genuinely surprised at your local multiplex? Maybe it was the unexpected qualities of a movie that you'd formed preconceptions about -- which were then pleasantly upended. Or perhaps it was the simple fact that a little-heralded independent picture was actually playing at your local bijou, the one with 18 screens, of which 14 always seem to be filled with predictable Hollywood product.

From Scott Weinberg's Sundance review, I knew that Good Hair, directed by Jeff Stilson, would be educational. From Eugene Novikov's box office report, I knew that it opened at 176 theaters three weeks ago. (It expanded two weeks ago and again on Friday.) But I was still quite surprised that it was playing at my local 18-screen bijou, which had somehow escaped my notice until I was recently binging on a (progressively disappointing) horror triple-feature. With horror DVDs stacked up at home waiting to be watched over the weekend, I decided that a well-regarded documentary might be just the thing to cleanse my palette. So I was in just the right mood to kick back and be surprised.

As expected, co-producer and co-scripter Chris Rock is a wry narrator and on-camera guide. What caught me off guard was how funny the interview subjects are! When I first read Scott's review months ago, I latched on to his opening line: "I now know more about black womens' hair than any middle-class Jewish guy ever has" and unfairly categorized it mentally as 'good for you, not necessary to see in a theater.' While I wish that the theater had been packed, I laughed out loud frequently nonetheless.


Having spent the better part of a decade in a Caribbean / African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, the doc brought back plenty of good memories for me, and reminded me why I could never afford to date a black woman for very long (though I gave it a couple of shots). Beyond that, it's consistently engaging, not just for "curious white people," as one of the actresses interviewed refers to the Caucasian curious, but for anyone who enjoys solid, brisk entertainment.

As a film, it doesn't set out to redefine cinema, and plays it pretty safe in its traditional style, mixing talking head interviews with footage from beauty salons, barber shops, a huge trade show, and India (?!). Be advised that it gets verbally raunchy in one segment describing what to touch -- and what not to touch -- when relationships get sexual. Evidently, you may not want to tell, but you better be sure to ask.

Good Hair is a feel-good movie that doesn't pander to its audience. That's what I call a good multiplex surprise.

Check out the the official site for more information about the movie and an updated list of theaters.