Skin -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

NEW YORK -- Some true-life tales are better suited to documentaries than fictionalized feature films. That's the case with "Skin," which chronicles the fascinating story of Sandra Laing, an apparent black woman born in '50s-era South Africa whose parents were, in fact, white Afrikaners.

With Sophie Okonedo's impassioned lead performance -- her best since her breakthrough Oscar-nominated role in "Hotel Rwanda" -- and strong supporting turns by Sam Neill and Alice Krige as her parents (Ella Ramangwane is also quite good as the young Sandra) and you've got a movie that should find an appreciative audience on the art-house circuit, particularly if a cultural tastemaker like Oprah Winfrey decides to give it her seal of approval.

While Sandra grew up with the unconditional love and support of her mother and father, society at large was unable to see past her dark skin. At age 10, she was officially classified as colored by a board of South African officials, a ruling that was later overturned after it inspired outrage overseas.

Years later as an adult, Sandra herself asked to be re-classified when she fell in love with a black man and gave birth to two children. That decision permanently estranged her from her family and, after her marriage collapsed, she had to create a new life for herself and her kids in the face of prejudice and poverty.

A screenwriter would have to work overtime to make Sandra's remarkable life boring and "Skin" scribes Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt and Helena Kriel do a fine job mapping her story onto a traditional three-act film structure. Shooting on location in South Africa, director Anthony Fabian adequately recreates the country's post-apartheid era, although the film's low budget clearly keeps him from capturing those turbulent times on a larger scale.

Nevertheless, it's hard to escape the feeling that "Skin" would be more affecting if it featured the real Sandra recounting her story in her own words, a notion that's driven home by a brief cameo by Laing, who still lives in South Africa, in the film's closing moments. In fact, there is a short documentary entitled "Sandra Laing: A Spiritual Journey" that can be viewed online.

Despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, there's an artificiality to the proceedings that often plagues these kinds of reverent biopics. A documentary would likely have been able to circumvent that, providing viewers with a first-person account instead of a version that's filtered through a screenwriter's pen.

Opened: October 30 (Elysian Films)

Production Companies: Elysian Films, Bard Entertainments, Moonlighting Films
Cast: Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Tony Kgoroge, Ella Ramangwane, Faniswa Yisa, Hannes Brummer
Director: Anthony Fabian
Screenwriters: Helen Crawley, Jessie Keyt, Helena Kriel
Producers: Anthony Fabian, Genevieve Hofmeyr, Margaret Matheson
Executive producers: Simon Fawcett, Robbie Little, Laurence Paltiel, Alasdair MacCuish, Moses Silinda, Hellen Kalenga
Directors of photography: Dewald Aukema, Jonathan Partridge
Production designer: Billy Keam
Music: Helene Muddiman
Costume Designer: Fotini Dimou
Editor: St. John O'Rorke
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes