Australian director David O’Donnell’s feature debut, Under My Skin, takes a fresh approach to telling the story of young couple Denny and Ryan, whose relationship is tested as Denny questions their gender identity. Denny is played by four non-binary and trans non-binary performers (Liv Hewson, Chloe Freeman, Lex Ryan, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez) to dramatic effect.
Under My Skin starts like a standard rom-com. Handsome young lawyer Ryan (Alex Russell) meet-cutes free-spirited artist Denny (as played by Liv Hewson) in a bar. He’s immediately attracted to Denny’s combative but flirty personality and female-presenting looks. It’s “corporate white-guy” meets “artistic red-head” – and a romance begins, even if Denny does appear to be playing a game of “cat and mouse” with this apparently ideal suitor.
The root of Denny’s variable emotions slowly becomes clear. Denny is not at home in their own skin, at first staring intently at a male underwear billboard and imaging their body devoid of breasts, later shaving their head and seeing a gender therapist. Ryan meanwhile is unaware of the underlying causes of Denny’s mood swings and internal struggles.
To the film’s credit there are no clear heroes and villains. Denny’s behaviour to Ryan is often harsh, and his bewilderment and growing resentment feel earned and honest. By playing in the unspoken grey areas present in all relationships, Under My Skin proves itself to be a mature examination of the lives of gender-diverse and non-binary people on a path of self-discovery.
The conceit of using multiple performers is an interesting one and works well; not only demonstrating Denny’s unease in their own skin, but also Ryan’s confusion in dealing with a person who is changing day-by-day. Liv Hewson plays Denny for longer periods than the other performers and forms the real emotional core of the character, while Chloe Freeman, Lex Ryan, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez bring out different aspects in Denny’s evolution. It can be discombobulating for the viewer at times, but we are eased into it by Alex Russell’s steadfast performance; Ryan’s affection for Denny doesn’t waiver based on the actor opposite him. It also challenges the audience; do our feelings towards the couple change when Denny is suddenly looking less feminine or more statuesque? The multiple casting does occasionally feel a bit gimmicky, but overall it’s a bold experiment that earns its presence and goes some way to translating Denny’s experience to the screen.
The film loses its way slightly with Ryan’s office-bound storyline (featuring Alexis Denisof as Ryan’s boss) that threatens to vere into melodrama, and there is a distractingly bad wig situation in the film’s final scenes, but by this point the characters had earned enough good will with their genuine chemistry that these points were easy to forgive.
For the most part, Under My Skin doesn’t reach for easy answers or trite sermons. At its heart this is a universal story of a couple struggling to communicate, with each other and with themselves. It’s a story of people in flux, and those are always the most interesting ones to watch.
By Chad Armstrong
Under My Skin screens at the Ritz Cinema, Randwick in Sydney as part of QueerScreen’s 28th Mardi Gras Film Festival on Fri 26th Feb. For tickets and more info head to the QueerScreen website.