Tribeca Film Review: ‘Skin’ Stays on the Surface But Jamie Bell Goes Deep


2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Taking cues from several “redemption” tales, Guy Nattiv‘s “Skin,” loosely based and tied to the Oscar-winning short from 2018, has plenty of high points that nab the viewer’s attention.  Sitting at the helm, star Jamie Bell pulsates from the screen like an unstoppable force, in one of his best performances to date.  Co-stars Danielle McDonald, Bill Camp, and Vera Farmiga also sizzle while the film explores themes and narrative beats a la “American History X,” however, nowhere near as thought-provoking.

“Skin,” which is inspired by a true events, tells the story of a destitute young man Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), who is raised by racist skinheads, notorious among white supremacists.  When he turns his back on hatred and violence to transform his life, Bryon, with the help of a black activist Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter) and the woman he loves, Julie Price (Danielle McDonald), look to remove more than just the darkness within his soul.

Director Nattiv, who also serves as the film’s screenwriter, is well-intentioned, but he turns a serious issue like white supremacy and morphs it into a simplistic, and at times, unconvincing tale.  Nattiv gives his lead character far too much leeway and paints an easy road for Bryon to travel where he’s the “hater” and quickly becomes the “acceptor,” all in record time.

It’s difficult to see what made Bryon change beyond meeting a former white supremacist single mother with three kids, who get heckled at a white supremacist rally.  You read that sentence correctly.  A mother of three female children, who is a “former white supremacist,” and claims to be “done with this life,” brings them to a white supremacist rally to sing songs that are approved by the group, and for which they are accepting money.  For Bryon, it is this encounter with Julie, the “change” in Bryon takes shape and the audience is to believe this is enough to move the needle.

In a story about “white redemption,” there should be a feeling of atonement for past sins. Bryon is a monster who has committed detestable crimes against minorities and humanity including robbery, arson, and possibly murder (though never confirmed).  Nattiv doesn’t give Bryon an opportunity to go beyond his self-destructive behavior, and instead provides a cinematically created setup in which Bryon is simply “disgusted” by the actions of his former “family.”

“Skin” doesn’t miss the mark all the way through.  There’s been significant growth for Jamie Bell, who burst on the scene with his debut and masterful turn in “Billy Elliot” in 2000.  The industry has seen a mixture of texture and emotion in different outings such as “Snowpiercer” and most recently in his current career-best work with “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” opposite Annette Bening.  His exploration of Bryon is in-depth and substantial, even when the script doesn’t allow him to make the full-fledged connection.  Perhaps Bell was better equipped with background information on the real Bryon that he was able to tap into.

Nattiv’s work on the film’s ensemble is where he should be highly commended.  Everyone is delivering a dynamic amount of skill.  Vera Farmiga’s “Ma” plays into the insecurities of vulnerable youth and exhibits the pounce in an effective manner while Bill Camp’s “Hammer” is much heavier than the name suggests, both in terms of fear and his downright terrifying peek into the subconscious.

The only former cast member from the controversial Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short, Danielle McDonald is playing a totally separate character, which begs the question, why does the film share the same name as the other?  The only similarities are white supremacy and McDonald’s presence.   After discovering her in the criminally under-seen “Patti Cake$,” Danielle McDonald is finding herself in independent cinema and is daring future filmmakers to not choose her for their features.  She is, in many ways, the film’s true standout while the talented Mike Colter seemingly has nothing to do beyond a stumbling intro and an unearned ending involvement.

In general, “Skin” is a good film, but that’s honestly just in the proverbial sense.  We’ve been witnessing the evolution of film for quite some time, as new, interesting, and shockingly seasoned filmmakers are making their marks.  Nattiv might have been better served to allow another screenwriter to guide his quest.  A very promising director who assembles a barrage of technical talent, most notably composer Dan Romer and cinematographer Arnaud Potier.  He just hasn’t quite gotten there yet from a narrative standpoint.  All in all, the film’s worth a look by any curious minds.

“Skin” is distributed by A24 and opens in theaters on July 26.

GRADE: (★★½)