ÉCU Film Festival | 2019
Dir. Guy Nattiv
It is clear after seeing SKIN why it won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film and it is a film that fills you with dread, anger, confusion and disappointment. A film has to be really good if it is able to elicit these types of emotions from you and in Guy Nattiv SKIN you feel this and a lot more.
From the offset, it appears that Nattiv is purposefully goading the audience into a reaction. Most of the film focus on a typical blue-collar white family in a blue-collar nameless town. Though the way this family interacts might not be everyone's cup of tea (a scene on a shooting range and literal sofa surfing aren’t going to win them ‘Family of the Year’) what the audience does see is love.
The father, Johnny, Jonathan Tucker, and son Troy, Jackson Robert Scott have a deep bond and throughout their scenes you see this rather touching and wonderful relationship. And yet there is ‘something’ not right and one feels somewhat disappointed in oneself for knowing before knowing what the ‘something’ is.
As the family wait to pay for their shopping at the checkout Troy starts smiling at a man (Jaydee), Ashley Thomas in the next checkout who smiles back. When Johnny spots this he chimes in and demands to know ‘what was going on’ and the moment escalates quickly with Johnny calling the guy a ’N***er’. Not wanting it to let it go Johnny follows the Jaydee to his car and with the aid of his friends begins to mercilessly beat him, Jaydee never has a chance. His children and wife, Shelley Francisco, are left helpless in the car screaming desperately trying to get help as five guys beat, kick, stomp and spit at their father, her husband.
"Impossible to see how hate like this can have any positive outcomes."
Audible gasps can be heard from the audience during this final scene as Johnny picks up Jaydee's milk and purring it over the Jaydee’s face. And yet for me, the most heartbreaking moment comes as the SUV with Johnny, his wife, son and accomplices drives off a woman can be seen the back seat peering out the window laughing at the bloodied man on the floor.
The next scene is something that perplexed me as there didn’t seem to be a real follow up to the crime. As Johnny, Troy and Christa, Danielle Macdonald, sit around the breakfast table there is a soulless ignorance to what happened the night before. There is no conversation, no questions, and most telling no clear repercussions about what happened. It is impossible to see anyone can hate like this and for there to be a positive outcome yet in this scene we see nothing but love, affection, playfulness. Nattiv successfully depicts a really happy family who might struggle and who might not live in the best neighbourhood but they are happy. So why is there so much hate, what has happened and is happening to make Johnny so hate filled?
We never get the answer to this and the scene plays out and there is no knock on the door, no fear of reprisal which induced a greater sense of anger and frustration in me. It is only later on that the audience becomes privy to what the repercussion for Johnny will be.
Perhaps one of the more salient issues with the film is that we never get to know about the Jaydee, Brony or their family or what he went through after he was attacked, the film keeps its focus on Johnny and his family. This creates an unfair balance as the tragic ending forces us to emotionally respond more towards Johnny and at this point, we have forgotten about what happened to Jaydee and his family.
At the very core of SKIN are two young buys, Troy and Jaydee’s son Brony, Lonnie Chavis, who witness events that will not only scar them but all change their lives forever. The loss of innocence is a theme in many coming-of-age films but few manage to power and urgency quite the way Nattiv has with SKIN. For Brony there is the helplessness of seeing his father being so brutally beaten outside their car. And it goes deeper perhaps as the hero worship between fathers and sons, something that is illustrated by Johnny and Troy’s relationship, means Brony has seen his father in a new changed way. In fact, Nattiv goes deeper and makes Brony an accomplice in Johnny's kidnapping and does seem to allude to the fact that Jaydee is unaware of what is happening.
For Troy it isn’t the incident that leads to his father's disappearance but rather the beating Jaydee gets in the parking lot. Up until then, it seems the Troy has not been exposed to the racist beliefs of his father and so for him to smile at a black man in a supermarket was not that big of a deal. The reaction of his father, the brutality to which his father and friends treated this black man cemented in him this new feeling of inhuman, not fear and not indifference but inhuman.
There could have been some attempt to offer some type of ‘clarity’ with how the film and story unfolds. Perhaps for me the biggest issue I had began back at the supermarket parking lot when Jaydee was being attacked. Nobody came to help or attempted to help even though people had been watching and the noise would have attracted some attention. This makes it, even more, isolating for Jaydee and his family and makes the following scene between Johnny and Crista even more vexing.
Without real-time repercussions for his actions, Johnny begins to act and believe that he is untouchable. The fact that no police seemed to be called and no investigation (one has to believe that the parking lot had video cameras) means we are left wondering ‘why’ and ‘how’ to this.
The most telling part of the film for me was during the news broadcast that Jaydee wakes up to which mentions the kidnapping of Johnny 10 days previously. This made news yet Jaydee brutal racial attack didn’t? One might ask ‘why do we need this?’ and I would say that it is important to show balance in narrative fiction and the audience needs it sometimes in order to fully embrace the film and the themes therein.
SKIN is a complex short that packs in a great deal in the little time though some questions might not get answered the power and urgency of the film is never diluted.