My second film of Raindance Film Festival is a groundbreaking look at non-binary relationships. Following musician Denny (Liv Hewson) who begins to question their gender which puts a strain on their relationship with lawyer Ryan (Alex Russell). Under My Skin is the directorial debut by Australian filmmaker David O’Donnell and has generated much hype in the run up to Raindance. I knew it was a film I couldn’t miss. Historically, gender and sexuality that don’t fit societal “norms” have been used as punchlines and laughed at in films but O’Donnell’s film really delves into Denny’s mindset and shows a side that hasn’t been looked at much. Under My Skin feels deeply important for our times and brings out some phenomenal performances.
The script for this film is brilliantly tight. The chance meeting at the bar between Ryan and Denny is reminiscent of a traditional romcom but the subject of identifying as non-binary brings the film’s topical points into the 21st century, turning the film into a drama and making a piece that is relevant and poignant for our times. The way O’Donnell’s script handles this makes for a good talking point and we can only hope that this is the start of more films that look at gender and sexuality with sincerity and proper representation. Having different actors play Denny as well is a really interesting choice. Casting actors of different race, build and height shows the various stages of Denny’s struggle to admit and accept who they are.
Liv Hewson excels as the first Denny bringing out the struggle for their identity. I think the casting is important to note as Hewson is non-binary as well which ensures that the film has the correct representation and shows Hewson’s potential as a lead actor. Having already acted in supporting roles in big films such as Bombshell, Hewson is given time to shine in this indie that breaks ground on what it means to be non-binary, delving beneath the surface of discovering who Denny is. The film also gives Hewson a chance to showcase their music skills as they sing and play guitar at a local bar. Hewson proves themselves as a force to be reckoned with and I hope that their performance is recognised as such. Initially a free spirit, the prospect of being settled down with Ryan and moving in makes them feel trapped.
As Denny’s partner Ryan, Alex Russell is a nice pairing with Hewson. More straight-laced and settled in his life as a successful lawyer, the differences between him and Denny are so vast but they click together extremely well. Denny’s creativeness meshes well with Ryan’s logical outlook. As Ryan’s career becomes more and more promising, Denny’s struggle becomes more apparent and unbearable up to the point of the revelation. Just as Denny has her struggle, Ryan has his own struggle as he finds difficulty in accepting Denny for who they are initially. Every aspect of their relationship sees Ryan taking the wheel. He puts the down payment on the house and gives Denny the opportunity to work on their music career. Because everything is set in stone in his life, he isn’t sure how to react when Denny reveals their real identity. His confusion soon turns to anger and rage because he cannot bring himself to understand the situation. One scene in particular that is harrowing and heartbreaking is when he destroys the wall that Denny has painted.
An interesting factor in the film that struck me was the use of artistic expression throughout the film. Even down to their outfit choices, Denny’s artistic output coincides with their journey and struggle. The primary job is songwriting and that is where Denny is able to truly express themselves. When a makeup company wishes to use their music in an advert, Denny is dismayed as they cater to young girls. The same thing happens when they are booked to support Jason Mraz and they decline to play. Denny is hugely expressive but equally is determined to be an artist on their own terms. This is also reflected with the painting on the walls in their house. Denny starts painting in one small spot that grows and grows until images overlap with one another. That strive to succeed is juxtaposed with the fear of being successful.
Overall, Under My Skin is a heartbreaking and freeing film that shows the conflict and hope that comes with accepting identity. Denny’s journey is one that will resonate with a lot of people and hopefully this will cast out to more films being made that discuss similar issues. It’s a film I will be revisiting for sure and has made me excited to see what else Raindance has in store.
Under My Skin is showing at Raindance Film Festival.