Film Review: Skin

Sophie Okonedo's impressive star turn is the primary reason to seek out this compelling but curiously dry tearjerker.

Some true-life tales are better suited to documentaries than fictionalized feature films. That's the case with Skin, which chronicles the fascinating story of Sandra Laing, a seemingly black woman born in ’50s-era South Africa whose parents were, in fact, white Afrikaners.

While Sandra grew up with the unconditional love and support of her mother and father, society at large was unable to see past her dark skin. At age 10, she was officially classified as colored by a board of South African officials, a ruling that was later overturned after it inspired outrage overseas. Years later as an adult, Sandra herself asked to be re-classified when she fell in love with a black man and gave birth to two children. That decision permanently estranged her from her family and, after her marriage collapsed, she had to create a new life for herself and her kids in the face of prejudice and poverty.

A screenwriter would have to work overtime to make Sandra's remarkable life boring and Skin scribes Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt and Helena Kriel do a fine job mapping her story onto a traditional three-act feature film structure. Shooting on location in South Africa, director Anthony Fabian adequately recreates the country's post-apartheid era, although the film's low budget clearly keeps him from capturing those turbulent times on a larger scale. Couple that with Sophie Okonedo's impassioned lead performance—her best since her breakthrough Oscar-nominated role in Hotel Rwanda—and strong supporting turns by Sam Neill and Alice Krige as her parents (Ella Ramangwane is also quite good as the young Sandra) and you've got a movie that should find an appreciative audience on the art-house circuit, particularly if a cultural tastemaker like Oprah Winfrey decides to give it her seal of approval.

Nevertheless, it's hard to escape the feeling that Skin would be more affecting if it featured the real Sandra recounting her story in her own words, a notion that's driven home by a brief cameo by Laing—who still lives in South Africa—in the film's closing moments. (In fact, there is a short documentary entitled Sandra Laing: A Spiritual Journey that can be viewed online.) Despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, there's an artificiality to the proceedings that often plagues these kinds of reverent biopics. A documentary would likely have been able to circumvent that, providing viewers with a first-person account instead of a version that's filtered through a screenwriter's pen.