By John Battiston.
The creative hook of Australian director David O’Donnell’s feature debut, Under My Skin, is a unique one, to be sure. In the opening scene, we watch Denny, a biologically female singer-songwriter, freshen up at their bathroom vanity before heading to a gig, but as they duck into the water basin, open the medicine cabinet or otherwise obscure our view of their face in the mirror, only to reemerge a literal different person.
The ninety-six minutes that ensue follow Denny (primarily portrayed by Liv Hewson) as they begin a relationship with young, successful lawyer Ryan (Alex Russell), all while grappling with gender dysphoria. Between segments of the story, the actor portraying Denny changes from Hewson to Chloe Freeman, Lex Ryan and Bobbi Salvor Menuez, before Hewson takes the role once more for the final act.
With varying appearances, accents and (arguably) levels of androgyny, the purpose behind casting four different performers in the lead is clear: Denny simply doesn’t feel comfortable in their own body, nor do they yet know what their proper body would be. As Denny (while portrayed by Hewson) puts it outright during an argument with Ryan, they don’t feel they fit in the “box” they’ve been assigned.
But for freewheeling, artistic Denny, this “box” doesn’t just mean their body — it extends further to their relationship with Ryan and the strait-laced, corporate disingenuousness (and sometimes chauvinism) that comes with his chosen lifestyle and trade. And when Ryan learns just how seriously Denny is taking their transition to a nonbinary person — binding their breasts, cutting their hair, and eventually beginning to take testosterone — he wrestles with whether he can ultimately accept the change.
While the character dynamic between Denny and Ryan — from their meet-cute in one of Denny’s performance venues to their increasingly fraught domestic situation — is compelling and pushes the viewer to ponder difficult questions about identity, the choice to cast four performers as the lead, while a great idea on paper, results in a disconnect that’s difficult to navigate. Sure, each one does remarkably well portraying the different phases Denny goes through during their transition — denial, confrontation, internalization, aggression, and finally acceptance — yet when the actor filling Denny’s shoes changes (each one beside Hewson gets about twenty minutes onscreen), it’s near impossible to mentally coalesce the separate performances into one.
As a story whose message and success is so heavily dependent on Denny’s and Ryan’s character arcs, Under My Skin hobbles itself by making the former’s journey feel jarringly segmented. When Russell interacts with a new version of Denny, it’s difficult not to feel like we’re being introduced to a whole new relationship than the one in which we’d just been led to invest. To his credit, Russell’s interaction with each performer is seamlessly natural, and whichever acting duo happens to be onscreen manages to pull off genuine chemistry. Russell and all those playing Denny wonderfully flesh out the complex character work they’re tasked with portraying, without exception, captured by splendid camerawork and underscored with subtle, stirring, electronic music compositions.
However, it’s when the camera ventures into Ryan’s professional life that Under My Skin loses its sense of naturalism and goes to cartoonish lengths to all but condemn his normcore leanings. Between Alexis Denisof’s turn as Ryan’s hilariously, almost moustache-twirlingly loathsome boss (who actually utters the phrase, “Where’s the pussy at?” while in a bar) and purposefully bland set design, the film seems to be suggesting Ryan’s difficulty respecting Denny’s transition is due to an inherent closed-mindedness in his profession, implying that the choice to partake in a suit-and-tie, nine-to-five lifestyle is inherently immoral in and of itself. It’s a plotline whose intellect is limited at best, childish at worst.
Though surely excellent fodder for a pitch meeting, Under My Skin doesn’t manage to wring the intended effect from its most crucial creative choice. It’s intent is genuine enough to avoid earning the label of a gimmick, but it doesn’t go far enough to be dubbed a well-rounded strategy, either. Perhaps trusting the audience to follow a well-acted character arc with Hewson in the lead at all times would have helped this film to pack a greater punch. Instead, we’re left with four separate stories that can’t quite manage to form a cohesive, satisfying whole.
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