Jamie Bell is an underrated actor. Case in point: most people probably still think of him as ‘the kid from Billy Elliott.’ And short of that, they’ll remember he played Tintin for Spielberg and The Thing in that Fantastic Four movie they’d prefer to forget. But the reason he won those motion-capture roles in the first place is because he’s a versatile talent with chameleon-like abilities. He’s just never received his proper due as a performer. Guy Nattiv‘s Skin, based on his short film of the same name, may just be the vehicle that launches Bell to the next level as a leading man in Hollywood, as it allows the British actor to showcase his dynamic range and vulnerability.
Bell plays Bryon ‘Babs’ Widner, a young man comfortable living on the far-right fringe of society with his skinhead brothers and their makeshift ‘parents’ Pa and Ma, played by Bill Camp and a wild-eyed Vera Farmiga, giving off some major Manson vibes. See, Ma and Pa succeed in building their ranks by brainwashing impressionable young men from dysfunctional families who have nowhere else to turn for the love and structure that a family provides. Until, that is, Babs meets Julie, played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald of Patti Cake$ fame. Julie is a single mother of three daughters who has grown wary of men after several bad experiences. However, Babs takes to her girls, and she starts to see the good in him, believing him capable of changing his prejudiced ways. He quickly begins to believe this as well, and starts to recognize how Pa preyed upon him and turned him against his fellow man. Nattiv doesn’t show us when Babs first joined the family, but we do see Pa recruit a homeless teen (Russell Posner) who doesn’t even have hate in his heart, he just has an empty stomach.
There’s more to the film than the push-and-pull between Babs’ ‘family’ and the family he wants to build with Julie and her girls. There’s another character, an activist played by Luke Cage star Mike Colter, who specializes in ‘turning’ white supremacists and helps Babs change, but only if he wants to change. And boy, does he ever. And to show us this commitment, Nattiv keeps cutting to Bryon’s painful tattoo removal process throughout the film, a process that is symbolic of his hate being stripped away — his humanity slowly being restored one day at a time. Not only is Babs ready to change what’s in his heart, he’s willing to change what’s on his skin as well. These scenes are quietly fascinating, even if the subplot from which they stem — Colter’s activist working with Mary Stuart Masterson‘s federal agent to bring down Babs’ family — is the film’s weak link, in that we care more about Babs’ redemption.
Bell gives his all to the role and delivers what is likely his best performance yet, while Macdonald makes a strong if unlikely romantic foil for the actor, and they both do a good job hiding their accents. Young Zoe Coletti also makes an impression as the eldest of her daughters, and Daniel Henshall stands out as Bryon’s chief rival among the skinheads. Colter feels a bit out of place in the film — it might have been more effective had a less physically intimidating actor played the part — but he deserves credit for stretching outside his comfort zone. The same can be said for Farmiga, who takes a villainous turn and makes her presence felt in a relatively minor role. Pa may be running the white supremacist social club from the outside, but it feels like she’s pulling the strings and calling the shots.
A24 bought Skin at TIFF and it could be a savvy acquisition should Bell and Farmiga’s performance register with critics. I don’t see it becoming the next American History X, but I do believe there’s an audience out there willing to forgive Babs for his misdeeds, even if they’ll never forget them. Skin may feel at times like a familiar redemption tale, but like Bryon’s tattoos, appearances don’t tell the whole story. It’s what lies beneath the surface that truly counts, and I urge you to give this one a chance and take a look.