Tag Archives: B-

SKIN

Producer: Jaime Ray Newman, Guy Nattiv, Oren Moverman, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler and Dillon D. Jordan
Director: Guy Nattiv
Writer: Guy Nattiv
Stars: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Camp, Valerie Farmiga, Louisa Krause, Zoe Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett, Mike Colter, Mary Stuart Masterson and Russell Posner
Studio: A24 Films

B-

Israeli-born writer-director Guy Nattiv and his wife and producing partner, actress Jaime Ray Newman, won the live-action short film Oscar earlier this year for “Skin,” a racially-based revenge story about a white nationalist whose young son reacts rather badly when his father returns home with his skin colored black by friends of a man he had brutalized. It was praised, one supposes, for its message about the insidious effects of racism, rather than for its coarse narrative and crude production.

This feature-length film by Nattiv is not an expansion of the earlier work, for which one can be grateful—though uneven and somewhat ragged technically, it represents a significant improvement on the short. To be sure it too deals with a bigoted skinhead, but it is based on the life of an actual person, Bryon Widner, who was a member of a Midwestern white supremacist group for years until he renounced their ideology—and suffered the consequences of his perceived betrayal. His story was previously told in Bill Brummell’s 2011 documentary “Erasing Hate.”

That title here refers to Widner’s decision to have his racist facial tattoos removed as a sign of his total rejection of his past—a long and terribly painful process that becomes a motif here, scenes of the operations intersecting with sequences dramatizing Widner’s development from hatred to love, and thus a symbol of the difficulty of his redemption.

There are two people integral to the change in Widner’s attitude. One is Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a single mother who, like Widner, is part of the so-called Vinlanders Social Club, a group of skinhead thugs run by Bill “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) and his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga). Widner grows protective of her and her three daughters Desiree (Zoe Colletti), Sierra (Kyle Rogers) and Iggy (Colbi Gannett), and when she draws away from the group, he is moved to follow. The other is Daryl Jenkins (Mick Colter), a black activist who detects the sliver of doubt about the Kramers in Widner and makes it his goal to help the man extricate himself from the group’s malignant influence.

Precisely how Widner got involved with the Vinlanders in the first place is not covered here; when we are introduced to him, in the person of Jamie Bell, he is already a full, very active follower, ferociously brutalizing those identified by Kramer as enemies. Nattiv gives us a glimpse of how he would have been recruited by showing Bill and Shareen picking up a homeless teen named Gavin (Russell Posner) and indoctrinating him—a reflection, one presumes, of their usual practice.

But “Skin” is not about how Widner joined the Vinlanders, but how he left it—and the ramifications when Krager’s thugs come after him. The plot turns quite melodramatic in the latter stages, and one might wonder whether the actual events have been embellished to some degree, but Mary Lena Colston’s gritty production design and the frantic hand-held camerawork by Arnaud Potier go far to keep it grounded in reality, or at least a convincing approximation of it.

The other element of the film that does so is the acting. Pride of place has to go to Bell, who is fast becoming one of the screen’s most reliable actors. His turn here is about as far a cry from sweet Billy Elliot as one can imagine, a startlingly intense portrait of a man desperate to redeem himself for his brutal past.

It’s difficult to imagine “Skin” without Bell, but Macdonald’s contribution is no less remarkable. Julie is no more conventionally heroic a character than Bryon, but like him she showed extraordinary courage in disengaging from the Vinlanders, and Macdonald conveys that. Camp and Farmiga make a deeply unsettling pair, though they remain relatively undefined; she adds some sexual underpinnings to her relationship with their younger followers that make Shareen even creepier. Widner himself appears briefly in the closing credits, emphasizing the story’s real-life basis. That was perhaps an unwise choice, as it adds a documentary touch that deflates the dramatic impact of what’s preceded it.

Like Tony Kaye’s 1998 “American History X,” “Skin” tells a bracing story about one man’s struggle to free himself from the poison of racist ideology, anchored by an utterly committed lead performance. And, of course, the present direction of the nation’s politics makes the tale even timelier today.

BOOKSMART

Producer: Megan Ellison, Jessica Elbaum, Katie Silberman, Chelsea Barnard and David Distenfield
Director: Olivia Wilde
Writer: Katie Silbrrman, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel
Stars: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Victoria Ruesga, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Noah Galvin, Skyler Gisondo, Mason Gooding, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Nico Hiraga and Diana Silvers
Studio: Annapurna Pictures

B-

The script for actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut has reportedly been making the rounds in Hollywood for ten years (the initial version was on the 2009 Black List of promising unproduced screenplays), which makes perfect sense: “Booksmart” is essentially a gender-reversal variant of the surprise 2007 smash “Superbad.” (The linkage is accentuated by the fact that Beanie Feldstein, who plays one of the leads, is the sister of Jonah Hill, who co-starred in the earlier movie with Michael Cera.)

Not that there aren’t differences between the two pictures. The high school seniors determined to fill their pre-graduation weekend with raucous fun aren’t a couple of desperately nerdy guys this time around, but two brainy best friends who discover to their horror that they’ve pointlessly wasted the chance to have a good time for the past four years by applying themselves unstintingly to studying and campus service in order to get into good colleges—only to find that the classmates they’ve looked down on as hopeless, time-wasting goof-offs have all gotten into great universities (or landed great jobs) too.

The realization that they could have had both success and enjoyment inspires aggressive Molly (Feldstein) to convince her more compliant pal Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) that they should make up for what they’ve missed by going all out in the few hours they have left. Their objective involves crashing a party being held by Nick (Mason Gooding), the class VP to Molly’s President whom she dismisses as a dim-witted dullard but is secretly infatuated with anyway. The problem is that the shebang is at Nick’s aunt’s house, and they don’t know where it is. Molly is also prodding Amy to make some sort of move toward skateboarding Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), the tomboyish girl she’s interested in.

Their wacky attempts to get to the party bring the duo into contact with some of the school staff—the principal (Jason Sudeikis), who’s a Lyft driver on the side, and their teacher Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams), whom they call on for help at one point (and who’s being pursued by a student played by Eduardo Franco). They also have to deal with Amy’s flaky parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), who have been preparing a very different sort of graduation party. There’s also a pizza delivery man (Michael Patrick O’Brien) from whom they try to extract information, only to be rebuffed.

But their classmates are the major players in the evening’s adventure: George (Noah Galvin), the histrionic drama guy who’s holding a party of his own; Annabelle (Molly Gordon), who’s branded with a reputation as an easy lay; Hope (Diana Silvers), known for her caustic tongue; and many more. The strangest, though, are Jared (Skyler Gisondo), the ultra-rich kid whose money can’t buy him friends, even if he’s hosting a party on a ship, and his girlfriend, flamboyant Gigi (Billie Lourd), who periodically appears out of left field to engage in some new outrageous conduct, and who sometimes spikes drinks with drugs. (An encounter with her concoctions leads to an animated sequence in which the girls imagine themselves as a couple of dolls.)

Molly and Amy eventually do wind up at Nick’s party, where both initially appear to be making progress in assimilating with their classmates and connecting with the people they’d like to know better. But then the obligatory collapse occurs, and they find themselves at odds with one another; they split up, but not, of course, for long.

It’s admittedly a switch to see a raucous high school story like this told from a female perspective, and Wilde and her cast bring a good deal of energy to it. In the final analysis, though, the vibe isn’t all that different from so many recent teen farces or even the John Hughes pictures of the eighties. It’s one of the better raunchy high school comedies to come down the pike recently, but apart from the gender switch the level of innovation is actually pretty modest.

Still, the quality of the writing is better than the norm, Wilde and editor Jamie Gross keep things moving, and production designer Katie Byron, costumer April Napier and cinematographer Jason McCormick create a convincing ambience. Most importantly, Feldstein and Dever prove a fine pair, and all of the small army of supporting players put over their characters with enthusiasm, even if some of them (Lourd, Gisondo and Galvin, for example) play things very broadly.

Apart from the gender transformation of the leads “Booksmart” might alter the “Superbad” formula only slightly, but it’s winning enough to make you want to return to high school, for a couple of hours at least.