There is a pivotal scene in "Skin," a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story plucked out of the mess of South Africa's apartheid, when young Sandra Laing's father shouts the good news to the family -- "She's white again." Surreal and ironic, the moment captures the sensibility of this ambitious if sometimes uneven indie film with its eye always on the larger issues of race to be found within one unusual life.
Those three simple words turn out to be anything but good news for the dark-skinned Sandy, who was classified white at birth, then reclassified "colored" (mixed race) when she was about 10, then classified white once more a few years later, which is the moment captured by that scene.
But Sandy's loss was, in a sense, the filmmaker's gain, handing him a racial story that unfolds in stark black and white terms -- literally and metaphorically -- with the film tracing the attitudes and government edicts, medical tests and court suits, confusion and heartbreak that would batter Sandra, now 54 and still carrying the scars of her experience.
Portrayed by the fine British actress Sophie Okonedo ("Hotel Rwanda") as the teenager and adult, with a delightful Ella Ramangwane as the child, we see Sandy grapple with the "what are you?" question as much as those around her, struggling to find her place.
The story begins after the Population Registration Act of 1950, which classified all South Africans by race and made any mingling between the races illegal. Her parents were white Afrikaners: Abraham, an avowed nationalist played with rigid force by Sam Neill, and Alice Krige, as a mother torn. Their oldest child, Leon, was white. Then, because of regressive black genes it would take scientific advancements to eventually figure out, came Sandra, with all the characteristics of a black child, and later brother Adriaan, also black.
Sandy's color wouldn't initially pose a problem for the family, though there are hints that Abraham wasn't initially convinced the child was his (remember, this is long before the age of DNA testing). But when she was 10 and sent off to boarding school, the real world reared its ugly head. Suddenly the precocious little girl her father called "my angel" was ostracized by her classmates, caned by her teachers and finally kicked out of school and reclassified as colored. Abraham's fight to force the system to change her race back to white, and the ripple effects of that battle, shape Sandy's life and the rest of the film.
It is easy to see that director Anthony Fabian, who has long made his home in London, has roots in the documentary world (his first, 2001's "Township Opera," was also set in South Africa); it is there in the authentic look of the film, which re-creates the essence of the country from the '50s through the '90s, to the precision with which he lays out the facts of Sandy's case. But those documentarian genes also haunt "Skin," Fabian's first feature, which at times divides its allegiance to events and the emotions surrounding them.
"Skin" opens with the exuberance of 1994's free elections, apartheid over. Sandy is a media sensation again as she had been when her case was argued years earlier. But estranged from her white family for years with a life firmly tied to the black community, it has come too late for her.
Then the director takes us down the long road that has gotten her to this place: her sheltered early childhood, her coming of age and the increasingly dark shadow of race on her life. Most bitter for Sandy is the father who loves her but slips her skin-lightening lotion, has her jailed when she becomes involved with a black man, and ultimately disowns her. Krige is the mother who eventually bends to her husband's will.
Neill and Krige do a yeoman's job of not quite letting their characters turn into monsters, though Neill dances close to the line, with Okonedo using her body to great effect to absorb each rejection they dole out. But too many of the characters are either good or bad, and that loss of nuance is missed.
In a day when it's difficult to say something new about the racial divide, Sandy's story has a poignant power as it underscores just how deeply the fissures run even when it's all in the family. Abraham remained immovable in his belief the races should be segregated, just as his children remained "white" because a birth certificate deemed it so. Once he disowned her, Sandy never saw her father again. She reconnected with her mother only after his death and when her mother was nearing hers. Her brothers remain estranged. And race remains an issue.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, some violence and sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, West L.A., and Laemmle's Town & Country Cinemas, Encino