As racists go, traditional skinheads, with their shaved pates, thick-soled boots and swastika tattoos, seem almost old-fashioned. There’s a newly ascendant breed of white supremacists who often look like–and may in fact be–the clean-cut guy next door. The old-school skinheads are at least easy to spot: you know right away that you’re dealing with an angry, closed mind.
Even so, you’d never expect a xenophobic, hate-filled skinhead to have the sweet face and demeanor of the actor Jamie Bell, which is what makes Bell’s performance in Guy Nattiv’s Skin so effective: Bell plays Bryon “Babs” Widner, a young man who, as a disadvantaged, love-starved kid, found a home with adoptive parents Fred and Shareen (Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga). His new guardians gave his life structure. They also indoctrinated him in neo-Nazism. Surly and belligerent, Babs has no compunction about beating up a black teenager at a white-supremacist rally in Cleveland.
Then Babs meets Julie (Danielle Macdonald, perhaps best known for her role in the 2017 indie Patti Cake$) and her three young daughters. After a bad experience with a neo-Nazi boyfriend, Julie has changed her mind about her old racist behavior and thought patterns, and she gets Babs thinking about his own. The change has to come from the inside, but even when it does, there’s still the outside to contend with: Babs’ face and neck are marked with tattoos that proclaim his old beliefs as loudly as words do.
Nattiv won an Academy Award for his 2018 short film, also titled Skin, which dealt with similar themes (and also featured Macdonald). This Skin–inspired by real-life events–doesn’t always have the dramatic force it should, and unanswered questions linger. (Babs’ adoptive dad has political aspirations, and has run for office in the past, yet the authorities seem clueless about the power he holds over his thuggish disciples.)
But Bell is always worth watching. When we first meet Babs, his eyes as blank as ball bearings, he’s like a shell of a person, filled with bitter ideologies that don’t suit him. It’s only when he starts to think for himself that his better nature emerges. Bell makes every gradation of that shift believable, showing how the only way forward for Babs is to look beyond the skin he’s in.
This appears in the August 05, 2019 issue of TIME.