Every year, the Oscars dole out top honors for three short films: one documentary, one animated and one narrative live-action. There’s a complicated qualifying process, a very large selection pool and not a lot of hype around these back-half-of-the-show awards, even as a win can often completely change (for the better) the trajectory of a filmmaker’s career; adding “Oscar winner” to one’s resume still impresses.
This year, the award for Best Live Action Short Film went to Skin, a drama directed by Guy Nattiv about an incident at a grocery story between a white, neo-nazi family and an African American family, the fight in the parking lot that ensues, and a particular act of revenge following the fight. Despite being just over twenty minutes long and boasting an impressive cast (Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald), it manages to come off as crass, forced and wildly off the mark. Suffice it to say, I would not have voted for it had I a vote (though truth be told, this year’s crop of nominees was quite stark overall…but I digress).
The short film has since been adapted into a feature length production of the same name, also directed by Nattiv and again starring Bell and Macdonald. Based on a true story, Bell is Bryon “Babs” Widner, who was a fully-committed member of a white supremacist group in the midwest before realizing how messed up it all was and getting out. Of course, the story isn’t that simple and thankfully, Nattiv finds a new, more character-drive narrative from which to build the feature-length film around. Here, the story is more about Bryon’s deep ties to a scary, violent, destructive organization and the lengths he’ll have to go to in order to break free. Realizing the error of his ways is one thing; extracting oneself from what is essentially a terrorist organization and figuring out how to re-enter society is another.
As depicted in the film, Bryon begins his journey towards redemption when he meets Julie (Macdonald), a single mother who’s tangentially connected to the movement; her three musically inclined daughters perform at one of the groups rallies, but she’s already done with it all, refusing to raise the girls around all the hate. There’s a secondary plot involving a black activist, Daryle (Mike Colter), who’s determined to drag groups like Bryon’s into the daylight to face their bigotry. Nattiv tries to infuse conflict into the film by pitting these two factions against each other, but in this version at least, he doesn’t have to try so hard. The tension is palpable, thanks in part to strong performances by Bell, Macdonald and a supporting turn by Vera Farmiga as Ma, the matriarch of the hate group who brainwashes its members into a sense of warped security and acceptance.
Jamie Bell elevates anything he’s in, committing so solidly to his characters that one wonders what he must be like at the dinner table after a long day on set. Here, especially, he inhabits a man with his hate tattooed on his body (his face, even), and we understand every step of the way just how hard his path to getting away from it all will be. One step forward, two steps back. Bell’s chemistry with Danielle Macdonald, who rose to notoriety with her starring role in the wildly underrated Patti Cake$ and held her own alongside Jennifer Anniston in Netflix’s Dumplin’, (seriously, queue it up), is undeniable. They’re an odd couple of sorts, but each damaged in just the right way to find something to cling to in the other.
If anything is lacking in Skin, it’s context…not that anyone with even a passing glance at the headlines lately needs reminding that hate groups are feeling ever more emboldened these days. But the film feels almost too focused on Bryon’s story, especially as it tries to work in a comeuppance for the group he’s now departed. It feels a bit out of nowhere, grateful as we are to see them come crashing down. Given its subject matter and an unflinching approach to representing the very real, very bad perspectives of these people, Skin can be a hard watch, which makes the strengths of its performances all the more important.