Share, Pippa Bianco’s unflinching and deadly serious directorial debut, is nothing short of a full-fledge nightmare. A nightmare that will visit almost every teenager growing up in the digital age (especially girls), and a nightmare that will become reality in some form for more of them than many care to imagine or even admit. Rendered in the shallow focus of a shapeless dream, and set in the deep dark fault that modern technology has carved between real and imagined spaces, Bianco’s drama is not only a raw portrait of a sexual assault survivor, it’s also an oblique but horrifying essay on the various ways in which the internet has made us feel entitled to other peoples’ most private experiences. Essentially being Eighth Grade but directed by Michael Haneke, if you can get on that wavelength.
Share opens on Mandy (a compellingly internalized debut performance by Rhianna Barreto), she’s sixteen, and we see her face down on the grass on her parents’ lawn. She doesn’t remember how she got there; she doesn’t even notice the massive bruise that covers her lower back. The next morning comes, Mandy’s lying in bed and her phone starts to blow up. The kind of sudden activity that’s almost never good news; the simple sound of each text becomes a piercing feeling of shrill horror. She’s been sent a twenty-second video from the party that Mandy went to the previous night. It’s shaky and pixelated but the image it lands on is all too clear: Mandy is once again lying face down, this time on the cold floor of someone’s bathroom. She’s clearly unconscious. A crowd gathers around her body as a boy yanks down her underwear. And that’s where it ends. Whatever happened next and how Mandy go home is a mystery to her, and to us, but definitely not to everyone.
As the film progresses it becomes a glossy noir enveloped in a survivor’s moral crisis, and while there is a whodunnit element, it’s pushed to the background. As Bianco is much more interested in how all other people in this story claim the crime for themselves. After Mandy reveals what happened to her parents (J.C. MacKenzie and Poorna Jagganatha), she’s still has a very tough time being responsive to anyone. She becomes desperate for a narrative that she’s able to control herself and appears to grow more and more isolated every time someone tries to help. She’s only really responsive to Dylan (a fine but more miscast Charlie Plummer), a sweet but more apparently braindead kid whose kindness just might be a thin way to hide his crush. Overall the Dylan character is quite botched, he’s meant to be naïve but comes across more as simple. Share is long on dread and short on the more immediate emotions, and clumsy efforts to balance the scales of the two cement why the film is often too elliptical for its own benefit. Bianco’s screenplay offers more of a compelling dilemma than a real functional story, and the movie stalls whenever it tries to pretend to be otherwise.
Share is still quite smart and perceptive about the way that a situation like this can snowball, and this dour slow-burn naturally becomes more intense as it builds to the only choice that Mandy has left. And I’d still say that the film’s constant choice to avoid simplification for a strong nuance is admirable. While the film’s final moments will be a mix for some, the conclusive real of it provides an ingenious solution of restoring Mandy’s agency by offering her the kind of devil’s bargain that so many survivors must have to make for themselves. Share takes the risk of being so traumatized and detached that it risks losing its grasp on reality, but few movies have so strongly confronted the complexities of sexual assault, and even fewer have had the true courage to free a victim’s truth above the judgements she inspires.
A middle-aged white man stands on a stage, addressing an enthusiastic audience, feeding his followers into a frenzy. He says he plans to run for the Ohio state legislature, and that the central premise of his platform is the disparagement of Asians, African-Americans and other minorities (in actuality he uses far more derogatory slurs to describe them). “Maybe we should just make them leave,” he forcefully suggests, and he’s greeted with wild cheers and chants of “Send them back.” It’s a chilling echo of the “Send her back” chants that were heard at a recent presidential rally and soon all over Twitter and other sources of media. Except it takes place during an early scene in Skin, and it’s set more than a decade ago. The drama-thriller, inspired by the true story of a young man who dared to escape his white supremacist group and remove his many racist tattoos, sadly couldn’t be more relevant. Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) fled the violence and hate that defined his life for so long, but they aren’t going anywhere.
Jamie Bell is an actor with soft eyes and a bashful demeanor, both of which served him well earlier this year in Rocketman. In Skin those traits are virtually erased, and while the film at times struggles with fully illuminating his journey, it’s not because Bell isn’t giving it his all. Bell transforms convincingly from a slur-spewing skinhead to a decent human being. Unfolding in flashback as Widner undergoes multiple grueling treatments to erase his tattoos that cover his face and body — a literal and metaphorical personality shed — the movie immerses us in the dark heart of white power. What it struggles with, at times, is finding depth. The film doesn’t expose the psychological soft spots and belief systems that allow extremism to grow: Widner’s neo-Nazi views appear to be more of habit absorbed over time than actual philosophy.
Bryon’s journey comes to a fork in the road, one side is Vera Farmiga and Bill Camp as the hate-groups leaders (both are creepily credible in their roles), the other side is Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Coulter) a black anti-facist activist who’s trying to help Bryon find a way out. But it’s Widner’s relationship with Julie (a solid Danielle Macdonald), a wary single mother of three daughters, that gives Skin its emotional core and Bryon his true motivation to leave. The time he spends with them, is the time where the movie finds a warmth so divergent from the toxic bonds of his white-power family. Writer-director Guy Nattiv, who comes from a family of Holocaust survivors, and his cinematographer Arnaud Potier both bring a strong urgency to Bryon’s journey (along with Dan Romer’s solid almost horror-like score). Nattiv’s movie works best in its more quieter, less weak melodrama, moments. Where we see Bryon coming to understand that his loyalties branded on his skin are no longer a proud costume, but more of a pictorial prison. Bell’s performance brings this all to life, making Bryon’s doubt and pain palpable. Hope is tantalizing yet elusive. But what Skin optimistically suggests is that if someone so deeply entrenched in hatred can turn his life around, maybe there is indeed hope for others. It’s a nice, hopeful idea in these weary times.