Sandra Laing, the real-life figure at the center of Anthony Fabian's social issue drama Skin, made international headlines with an unusual and achingly sad personal story, which Fabian uses as a testament to the emotional, psychological, and sociological fallout of apartheid. The child of white Afrikaner parents, Sandra (portrayed as an adult by Sophie Okonedo) was nevertheless born with brown skin, attributable to some unusual genetic quirk, and thus fell uneasily between the white and black communities of racially segregated South Africa. For Sandra, life became a tumultuous struggle over personal identity and a decades-long quest for belonging. And much of the conflict initially surfaced when Sandra's parents (played here by Alice Krige and Sam Neill) attempted to buck the color bar by sending their daughter to an all-Afrikaner primary school -- to the horror of racist instructors and administrators.
On an emotional level, director/co-writer Fabian and his scribes, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel, and Helen Crawley, forge a fluid and generally cohesive biographical tale that hits many appropriate notes of despair, poignancy, and tragedy. Heartbreak and outrage are inevitable in this story, and the filmmakers never shy away from flashing the hideous face of bigotry -- from the lingering, accusatory stares of Sandra's classmates to the sadistic brute of a teacher who forces her to stand in front of the classroom and scream out the times tables while he whips her with a lash until drops of blood fall onto the floor. The film also incorporates a devastating scene that sums up Sandra's early identity crisis and naïve self-hatred, in which the girl (played by Ella Ramangwane as a youngster) responds to the intolerance of classmates by spreading bleach, cleanser, and other assorted cleaning solutions over her skin until it grows raw and bloody.
The film remains predictable yet emotionally effective for its first third or so, but moves into more complex waters when it delves more deeply into the perverse attitudes and opinions of Sandra's father. As portrayed by the eminent Neill, Abraham Laing initially comes across as a courageous, upstanding, and loving dad, resolutely opposed to the bigotry that characterizes early '60s South Africa (evidenced via his insistence on sending Sandra to an all-white school), but we realize, as the picture rolls on, that all impressions of Abraham's intolerance to racism have been deceptive. As Sandra grows older, she begins to identify more closely with the black community and takes a black lover -- to Abraham's outrage -- and it becomes apparent that Abraham has simply bought into the racial typing and cannot bear the thought of his daughter being classified as black, hence his early insistence that the primary school identify his daughter as an Afrikaner.
That transition represents a double-edged sword, and one that the film is not quite prepared to handle. On the one hand, the sudden revelation of layers within Abraham that we hadn't initially seen suggests a multidimensionality in the character and the film, but paradoxically, it also introduces one of the film's dramatic weaknesses. Abraham's regression, over the course of 30 minutes, from a sensitive, loving, and intelligent dad into a vile, uncaring, and inhuman monster unworthy of his daughter's love is so jarring that it strains plausibility. At perhaps his lowest point, he even swears that he'll kill his daughter and then commit suicide if he lays eyes on the girl again. According to reports about Sandra's life, the man actually uttered these unfulfilled threats, but as the film sets it up and presents it, it simply doesn't ring true, failing to gel with our impressions of the father presented in the first act.
The film also suffers from another key weakness: in lieu of even attempting to arrive at a resolution about Sandra's racial-identity crisis (as she ends up rejected by both the white and black communities), it instead weaves the final act around the issue of maternal-filial reconciliation. It's not a completely unreasonable destination for the drama, certainly, but we need at least one scene that addresses Sandra's final sense of social belonging (or lack thereof); as it stands, the issue kind of trails off, and the filmmakers leave it hanging.
These flaws are what hold Skin back from true brilliance, making it choppy and somewhat dramatically uneven. Many of the individual sequences, however, contain real emotional power, and the film does effectively pull the audience into the complex psychological and social adjustment experienced by Sandra, as a product of something that, in an ideal world, should have gone unnoticed.