Directed by Anthony Fabian
Released October 30, 2009
Sometimes there are stories that seem like they can’t possibly be true, and knowing that they are makes their impact all the more staggering. The case of a black girl born to white parents in South Africa during apartheid is just one of those stories, and its dramatization on screen is a harrowing portrait of a person whose life was so shaped and disrupted by societal conventions that she never knew quite what to make of herself. It’s a quietly effective film that, like its protagonist Sandra, doesn’t attempt to make a big show of things. She tries to go along living in an impossibly shifting situation, and the film follows her journey with careful, dutiful finesse.
Most of what makes Sandra’s story believable is the wonderful cast that portrays the people in her life. The role of Sandra is split between two actresses, starting with talented young newcomer Ella Ramangwane, whose face conveys innocence and an inability to do harm, even to those who make her life miserable. Seasoned actress Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) takes over once Sandra grows up, and she captures the spunk Ramangwane has created but imbues the more mature character with a sense of when to hold her tongue and suffer in silence. Sam Neill (“The Triangle,” “Crusoe”) yields a fierce sense of elitist entitlement due to his race, and the emotive actor displays the pain he feels at both having a daughter who is black and at trying not to accept it extraordinarily. Alice Krige (the Borg Queen from “Star Trek”) shows her equally compelling softer side as Sandra’s initially protective, supporting mother who lets her husband and her prejudices get in the way of being true to her family. The cast contributes immensely to the powerful impact of the film, and they all deserve praise.
In the same way that Sandra was trapped in her body, “Skin” doesn’t offer any fantasy escapes. Sandra’s life is seen exactly as it played out, with no illusions along the way or daydreams to keep Sandra’s spirit alive. Sandra had an indisputably tough childhood, and her persistence and survival is inspiring. The horrors of the South African backdrop aren’t minimized, and it’s a starkly serious experience with few moments of genuine pleasure or anything approaching true happiness. It’s not a devastatingly depressing experience, however, due to Sandra’s function as a remarkably empathetic character whose ability to persevere guides the film along in its portrait of her life. Her drive to investigate a way of changing her life and to reconnect with those who abandoned her is what makes her story worth telling. At its core, “Skin” is a story of survival, and a look back at how apartheid and other forms of segregation can be utterly detrimental to a person’s well-being and very existence. This film doesn’t overstate any of that, but calmly captures and logs it for all the world to see. In many ways, it’s the most fitting tribute to Sandra and those who struggled just like her. In this case, fortunately, the movie is absolutely worthy of the story.
Saturday, October 31, 2009