The Beauty Academy of Kabul

Rated 3.0

At first, Liz Mermin’s documentary about a handful of Westerners who set up a beauty school in post-Taliban Afghanistan comes across more like a befuddled assemblage of raw materials than a thoughtfully crafted film. But after a while the movie’s apparent narrative disarray—its irresolute character identification and predilection for emotional reversal—seems apt for its setting and situation; the question of whether hairdressers can be cultural healers is especially thorny in the ravaged city of Kabul. “You’re a sacrificed generation,” one rueful returning émigré tells the academy’s eager students, some of whom actually ran clandestine salons out of their homes during the era of Taliban repression. The residue of that era still lingers, of course, and Mermin’s project is most arresting when the idealistic and self-satisfied interlopers are brought up short by their pupils’ grim pragmatism and unlikely resilience. Having endured decades of war, tyranny and culturally ingrained chauvinism, they can hold their own against the often vain and officious intrusion of another culture’s dubious values.