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The opening sequence to Under My Skin shows you all four non-binary actors who play the main role of Denny in a steadily paced mirror montage. The change of faces is disconcerting but also a powerful illustration of the dissonance between inner and outer for the trans/genderqueer experience. I didn’t expect to understand that immediately and respond rather hard to it. That yes, the person I see in the mirror does change, sometimes I recognise myself, sometimes I don’t, but it is always changing. I am all of those people even if only one is present in the mirror or to the world.
This debut film written and directed by David O’Donnell is a love story between Denny, an artist and musician grappling with their gender expression, and Ryan, a very conventional lawyer who probably has never even heard the term “cisgender”. Ryan sees Denny enter a bar and has an “innocent religious experience” at the sight of them, whatever that means. Denny’s bewildered but not that interested. Except then the plot forces a fairly unpleasant workplace incident of sexual coercion that Ryan gets to save Denny from like some lawyer-Prince Charming. Their relationship evolves fast and becomes increasingly tense as Denny grapples with the deep pain of body versus self, of trying to find that authentic self-expression.
There’s use of a clever little device early on to show Denny’s shifting identities when playing music because that’s really them at their truest and most authentic, all the many facets and changing modes of them. Which is then manifested with each small physical change made to their outward self or big emotional moments. The change in actors playing Denny is really jarring for the first few minutes each time. And I’ll admit the race aspect troubled me quite a bit — not sure we’re actually in that post-racial utopia yet, mate, but I suppose this is a glimpse of that world. Liv Hewson has the most screen time in a rich intelligent performance. Chloe Freeman brings a lovely playfulness to Denny, and Lex Ryan is exquisite in their vulnerability in some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film. Bobbi Salvör Menuez’s performance is a highlight, so much fierceness, truth, and power in a very short space of time — so much so that I rather resented Liv Hewson’s return until their performance captivated me all over again.
Denny and Ryan exist in a kind of liminal world – I was never quite sure if it was LA or some other city entirely. Nevertheless, that world is not unlike ours in that it’s suffused with gender performance for cis men as well as queer people, all these trappings and pressures that are present in bar conversations and casual homophobia. There’s an interesting bit later when Alex experiences sexual harassment in the workplace and is promptly gaslit by his assailant. I found that a really useful reversal of the usual female-focused Me Too situation depicted onscreen.
Under My Skin also highlights how prevalent gender performance is in advertising from images on billboards to selling makeup to little girls. I really liked how all that pressure was juxtaposed with a moment when Denny walks past a series of grungy street posters depicting each actor playing Denny. It’s a small moment but makes non-binary expression visible in a way that gladdened my heart at least, that our gender expression is just as valid as the rest. It also latently reminded me that non-binary expression is already spreading through real life advertising, be it men in makeup campaigns or trans models on prestigious magazine covers.
The production design is fairly unremarkable so as not to detract from the performances, except in Denny and Ryan’s apartment. There, the rough white blank space gains more texture and shade — not necessarily colour, it’s all greys — as their relationship and Denny’s emotional journey progresses. An evolving artwork on one wall becomes a focal point of the growing tension between Denny and Ryan. This turbulent visual aspect of their relationship develops alongside a song Denny writes throughout the film that forms an adorable fixation for Ryan. Every time he said “Play it for me?” with such sweetness I found myself smiling bemusedly at him.
It’s a small cast: we see Denny’s father in two scenes, and Ryan apparently has no family, entirely absorbed with Denny and his career. The focus remains rightly so on Denny and Ryan’s relationship. Still I cannot overstate the shocked delight of seeing Alexis Denisof on my screen again — forever crying over Wes okay — even though he plays an unmitigated arsehole of a lawyer who is all too recognisable to anyone who’s worked in the courts. His introductory scene as Mike has him making a wonderful point about how cis men present in threatening harmful ways even if they don’t realise it which he promptly undercuts and proves for the rest of the film. And was that Richard Brancatisano from Alex & Eve for that one scene? As an Australian production with a mostly Australian cast, all those mostly American accents take some getting used to. I can’t help but wish they all stayed Strayan and that the location was undisputedly here rather than there.
Alex Russell, who also co-produced the film, brings an awkward charm to Ryan that becomes endearing as the film goes on. Though he is much kinder and lovelier than the other arsehole lawyers, Ryan does tip alarmingly towards obsessive before evening out on his own journey to be free from the toxic machismo of the industry. The increasing estrangement in the sexual intimacy between Denny and Ryan is no less upsetting for being believable but then culminates in a quite riveting scene of power and vulnerability. It’s hard to escape the deliberate physical difference between the two, how Ryan presents as the epitome of white male perfection with his muscled physique with just the right amount of chest hair, and strong-jawed clean-shaven face. There are two moments — possibly two and a half? — in the whole film where his complete confidence in his own gender is shaken, and I will not deny that I immensely enjoyed them.
Denny’s emotional arc is complex and unshowy as they negotiate their own needs with their love for Ryan that is both a protection against the world and, unsurprisingly, a trap they need to break open. As a hopeless romantic, even I was scowling at a few points, seriously doubting whether a happy-ever-after was possible for these two. In terms of Denny’s own journey, it felt practical and valuable to see actual resources onscreen: not just binding and testosterone in chemical form in isolation, but also a sign for a gender therapist and pamphlets on queer identities and the physical waiting room of the practice. It’s one thing to know these things exist out there in the world; it’s a very different and validating thing to actually see what the space looks like, that it’s warm and welcoming, a space to visualise yourself in, and that there are people to help you and listen.
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