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Some films arrive with pomp and pedigree, others with hype and hoopla. Skin is opening in just a few theaters with only a handful of film festival honors to recommend it…but it’s one of the most powerful and affecting films I’ve seen all year. Its three stars—Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, and…

Alice Krige—give Oscar-worthy performances. Now if only people (including Academy members) would go out and see it!

The legend “based on a true story” has been used and abused so often it’s difficult to invest in a film that purports to be drawn from real life, but Skin tells a jaw-dropping, and heart-rending, tale that is truly stranger than fiction. In 1960s South Africa, a white, working-class couple raises two children—one of them a daughter who is, by all appearances, black. The wife has never been unfaithful to her husband, but through some anomaly, their child has dark skin. This is not an issue at home, but when they send the girl to school—in an apartheid society, where blacks have no worth—conflict arises on the very first day. The father, a stubborn shopkeeper played by Sam Neill, insists that the government declare his daughter legally white. What he refuses to accept is that even they do, the girl will face enormous hurdles, especially as she grows toward womanhood.

Skin is the story of Sandra Laing, played as a young adult by the talented Sophie Okonedo (who already has an Oscar nomination to her credit, for Hotel Rwanda, in which she played Don Cheadle’s wife). The story unfolds over thirty years’ time, as Sandra’s life, and her relationship with her loving mother and bull-headed father, go through many trials. The redoubtable Neill adds another indelible portrayal to his rogues’ gallery, never asking the audience for sympathy as a lesser actor might. The film is also a showcase for the brilliant, and underrated, South African actress Alice Krige, as the mother who suffers as much heartbreak as her daughter, while remaining loyal to her husband.

Director Anthony Fabian and his screenwriters (Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, and Helena Kriel) succeed in dramatizing this difficult story by dealing with particulars, not the big-picture issues they represent, and dodging sentimentality at every turn. In so doing, they allow us to absorb the facts and bring our own emotions to the film. It’s a superb piece of work.

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