‘What’s my name?’ asks the teen protagonist right before the title of the chilly, earthy The Next Skin flashes up onscreen: that’s the question which for the rest of the film has the other characters and the audience guessing, too. But real focus of this intriguing take on the effects of a possible case of mistaken identity is not just on who he really is, but on the emotional whirlpool into which his arrival throws the people to whom he returns, having been presumed dead, after eight years away. It’s a little as though someone had followed the victim family of Bart Layton’s The Imposter around with a camera as events were unfolding after his appearance.
As such, The Next Skin is a punchy, accessible combination of domestic and thriller elements that provokes the heart and the head in equal measure, as well as representing a successful comeback for feted Spanish auteur Isaki Lacuesta — this time aided by Isa Campo — following his at-best-uneven social satire Dying Beyond their Means. The film’s multiple awards in Malaga included best directors, actress and editing, suggesting further festival play for a film which has staked its claim early as one of Spain’s best of the year.
The action unfolds in the mistily rendered, chilly mountain region of the Spanish Pyrenees, in the kind of incestuous small town where the arrival of a stranger is likely to cause the maximum impact. At seventeen, Leo (Alex Monner) is returned to his mother Ana (Emma Suarez) from an orphanage, eight years after apparently wandering off alone across the mountains after the death of his father: cue later revelation of family secrets. But this particular reunion is hardly celebratory, because the seventeen year-old is, at least according to his social worker and father figure Michel (Bruno Todeschini), suffering from dissociative amnesia — a bit of a psychological-cinematic standby which here drives pretty much the whole plot, making it intriguingly ambiguous throughout. Put as simply as possible, Leo believes he’s Ana’s son, but can’t remember.
So the questions pile up. What is Leo’s real name? Does he really have amnesia? Has he be returned to his family, or is he seeking a new one, like The Imposter’s Frederic Bourdain? When he is silent for long periods at the start, is it the result of trauma, or is he being careful not to give anything away? When he claims to have forgotten something, is it that he never knew it? Understandably at first, nobody believes that Leo is who he or Michel are saying he is.
But Leo’s arrival provokes emotional mayhem, particularly for Ana’s new partner, the brutish countryman Enric (Sergi Lopez, an actor who guarantees at least a modicum of quality to any project he’s involved in.) Enric sees Ana drifting away from him towards the new arrival, and accuses him directly of being a charlatan. Meanwhile Leo falls in with Joan (Igor Szpakowski), who may or may not be his old friend and Clara (Greta Fernandez), and it’s a liberating experience for all of them: but beneath the issue of who the hero actually is, the film’s true concerns are with the effects of having such a troublingly ambiguous figure in our midst. And while for some Leo represents a threat, for others he meets a need.
It’s a tricky situation to set up credibly, and the script does it carefully and well — although whether a kid would really be so unrecognizable after eight years away is open to question. Performances are excellent across the board, with Monner generating a lot of interest in, if not actual sympathy for, the tough-looking, self-harming, dislocated teen. Emma Suarez (currently visible as a different, less interestingly-troubled mother at the center of Almodovar’s Julieta), rightly took the best actress award at the recent Malaga festival in a role which is straddled between hope that this is actually her son, and fear that he may not be: Suarez is able to transmit much of how that awful situation might actually feel.
There is an attractive subtlety about The Next Skin, as apparent in Gerard Gil’s delicate guitar score as it is in the film’s first images of melting ice, entirely appropriate to a film about fluid identities, as is the ever-present mist which sometimes makes it hard to figure out who’s who. Flares of stylization briefly emerge to break up the basic hand-held documentary beat which Lacuesta generally prefers. Sometimes it does so less than effectively, as when Leo seems to hear voices in his head, but sometimes stunningly, as when close to the end, all the surrounding sound fades to leave two characters movingly locked in world of their own. Ultimately, The Next Skin subversively suggests, when it comes to love and to need, then it may not matter whose blood you’re carrying — just as long as you’re the right one.
For the record, the dialogue is in the region-authentic mix of Spanish, French and Catalan.
Production companies: La Termita Films, Corte y Confeccion de Películas, Sentido Films
Cast: Alex Monner, Emma Suarez, Sergi Lopez, Bruno Todeschini, Greta Fernandez, Igor Szpakowski
Director: Isaki Lacuesta, Isa Campo
Screenwriters: Isaki Lacuesta, Isa Campo, Fran Araujo
Producers: Isa Campo, Isaki Lacuesta, Oriol Maymo, Rafael Portena Freire, Dan Wechsler
Director of photography: Diego Dussuel
Production designer: Roger Belles
Costume designers: Laura Gasa, Olga Rodal
Editor: Domi Parra
Casting director: Norma Massip
Sales: Corte y Confeccion de Películas
No rating, 103 minutes