The central theme of self-image smacks you in the face from the very opening scene, with lead character Denny getting ready in front of a bathroom mirror, as her physical appearance changes multiple times. This piece of visual trickery raises questions early on, but becomes much more apparent later on.
As the scene is set, supporting characters play into the subject as well, talking rather uncaringly over drinks about the power of suggestion and projection – which, for some, is purely emotional rather than physical, hence the insensitive nature.
It’s at this bar that our two leads meet; the strait-laced corporate lawyer Ryan (played by Alex Russell) and struggling singer Denny (initially portrayed by Liv Hewson, more on that later).
Sure, their romantic chemistry moves quickly, but that’s only to get us to the more interesting aspect of their relationship – when Denny starts to question her gender.
This is only magnified as she starts a new life with Ryan, moving into a nice apartment and living a somewhat domesticated life. At first, it seems like your typical struggle for young adults to change their routine, but as Denny struggles more, it’s clear that the struggle is more than skin deep.
Slowly, she starts to experience changes to her physical appearance, and this is where the variation of performers becomes so powerful. The actor playing Denny changes multiple times, from Hewson to Lex Ryan, Chloe Freeman and Bobbi Salvör Menuez; and the characters around her are none the wiser.
As a viewer, it becomes clear where Denny’s journey is heading, but each of the performers do an excellent job of maintaining the character’s journey, to the point that when the big a-ha moment happens, it still hits you for six.
What makes Under My Skin even more interesting is that it spends an equal amount of time with partner Ryan, who is dealing with his own inner conflict and confusion. Specifically, whether his role as Denny’s partner can remain intact or whether he should be playing a role in their journey at all – something that hasn’t really been explored on screen before, at least not in relation to gender identity.
Australian filmmaker David O’Donnell (here working in the US) is certainly breaking new ground, from the premise to the casting of non-binary actors. However, the flipside is that Under My Skin still adheres to many Hollywood romantic cliches – such as an unfinished song or a four-leaf clover that keeps bringing the couple back to one another. Similarly, a lot of the sub-characters fall to the wayside quickly, such as Denny’s father and friends. It would have been good to spend more time with these people as they all learn and react to what’s happening.
The main takeaway is that while most big-budget films are cut from the same cloth these days, it’s good to know that there are still so many unique stories to tell from filmmakers who haven’t been represented properly before. Most importantly, hopefully these stories can reach people going through similar experiences, whether directly or with someone close, and it helps them to understand and deal with the situation better.