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Skin

A Better Fit for the Small Screen

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

What could have been an unbelievable tale of struggling with one’s identity in Apartheid South Africa is nothing more than a melodrama better left for the Lifetime channel than the big screen. Anthony Fabian’s first full-length feature is the classic tale of relying too much on a character’s emotions and foregoing external forces that could move the plot forward.

It’s fair to say the story of a dark-skinned girl born to white parents in a time when that dictated your life is incredibly affecting. Instead of exploring the many avenues this story offers, Fabian focuses on a clichéd journey of a woman looking for acceptance and happiness.

Sophie Okonedo (The Secret Life of Bees) does a commendable job as Sandra Laing, the woman caught between two races. Unaccepted by the bigoted white population, she is shunned from the normal life her parents hoped her to have. After being expelled from school, her father (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) sets out on a legal battle to have her declared white. Despite winning, and being labeled white by the government, she still struggles for acceptance amongst her race. Things don’t get better when she begins an affair with a local black man after multiple failed attempts with white men. Now, it’s her own racist father who’s upset with her choice. Becoming estranged, she follows a long journey to reconcile who she really is in a time when skin color was paramount.

There are moments of true clarity, mostly thanks to Sam Neill’s powerful performance, but much of the film is shot as a TV movie, perhaps because it is a medium that Fabian is familiar with. Scenes are bland and sensational to the point of boredom. The ironic twist of having a father who fought for his daughter’s rights only to disown her when she falls for a man of a different race seems lost on Fabian. Instead of feeling the irony, Sandra laments the loss of her parents.

As even the most trivial film fan can tell you, there’s a right and wrong way to make an emotional film. This is precisely the wrong way. By focusing so much on what the characters are going through, the film all but ignores the climate surrounding them. When it does, it feels awkward and forced, like the quick trial Sandra and her parents fight through in order to have her legally recognized as white.

A great film finds a way to connect the inner and the outer in a way that they can feed off each other for maximum effect. Too much inside creates a melodrama, while too much outside leaves an emotionally devoid plot-driven story. The film believes that her story is so incredible there’s no wrong way to tell it. There are many great stories that have been told poorly on film. Sadly, this can be added to the list.