Nailed It: Vietnamese and the Nail Industry does everything exactly right within the bounds of microbudget documentary filmmaking. At roughly sixty minutes, it’s too short to drastically overstay its welcome the way many niche-subject docs do. It’s rich in both interview subjects & extratextual material, collecting oral history anecdotes from generations of participants and pulling news & pop culture clips from the darkest corners of YouTube. It has its own distinct sense of style, thanks largely to anthropomorphic hands adorned with acrylic nails strutting their stuff across the screen in Flash-style 2D animation. Most importantly, Nailed It works hard to investigate an overlooked, understudied subject: Why is more than half of the American nail salon industry Vietnamese? Who were the first Vietnamese people to do nails? Is the industry a source of pride for the communities it supports or more of a necessary evil? As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, however, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.
The answer to how the first Vietnamese people got involved in the nail salon industry arrives early and with certainty, although maybe not from the source that you would expect. The Birds star Tippi Hedren is explained to be the instigator of the Vietnamese nail industry boom. South Vietnamese families who cooperated with American soldiers during the Vietnam War were granted asylum in the US once the North Vietnam government was declared victor. As a humanitarian effort, Hedren traveled to Vietnam with her personal manicurist to prepare local women with a potentially lucrative trade so that they weren’t arriving empty-handed. Because this history stretches just one generation back, most of the participants are still alive for interviews, even reuniting with Hedren & her manicurist to rehash the past. The stories of how workers who could not speak English transformed a crash course in manicurist skills into entire chains of self-owned salons (and even nail polish production factories, effectively become their own suppliers) is still stupefying regardless of the explanation. The ways they survive outside competition by outpricing them or seeking increasingly more lavish novelty nail designs eventually makes it so that Vietnamese salons encompass a majority of the market – something that has since been accepted as a decades-old fact, with little consideration for how we got there.
Where Nailed It might fall a little short as a feat in documentary filmmaking is that its subject isn’t quite as niche as it initially seems. There’s enough thematic material in Tippi Hedren’s initial crop of manicurist trainees alone to support an hour-long documentary, but the film extends far beyond that historical account. Nailed It condemns racist caricatures of Vietnamese nail techs in popular media like sketch comedy & stand-up routines, likening it to Donald Trump’s jingoistic “shithole countries” rhetoric. It seeks to contrast sensationalist news reports about how filthy & health-hazardous (supposedly) unsanitary nail salons can be with intimate documents of their community-supporting reality. At the same time, it advocates for healthier working conditions for manicurists who spend hours on end inhaling harmful chemicals. The histories of notable notorious salons and decades-long emotional bonds formed between specific manicurists & clients are profiled at length. Director Adele Pham also inserts her own relationship with her Vietnamese heritage into the already-sprawling narrative, even interviewing her own family members who aren’t directly connected to the industry. Any one of those individual topics might support an hour-long documentary; the stunning artistry of over-the-top novelty nail designs in particular isn’t afforded enough attention, which is understandable given the political implications of the subjects it has to share screentime with, but also frustrating because the few glimpses we get are so gorgeous.
Nailed It appears from the outset to be a short, concise documentary on a niche topic. By the time it’s over it instead plays like a surface-level overview of a much larger, more sprawling subject that deserves more extensive documentation. It feels more like a promising start than a compete work, with dozens of tangential threads that could be better served in isolation & elaboration.