Stars: Zara Zoe, Monica Zanetti, Elizabeth Blackmore, Jeanie Drynan, Billie Rose Prichard, Monica Trapaga and Robert Alexander.
Writer: Monica Zanetti
Director: Jon Leahy
A dozen drunken dusk-to-dawn hours on the streets of Sydney’s boho mecca, Newtown, prove ample time for two strangers to find friendship and grapple with existential angst in director Jon Leahy’s impressive debut feature, Skin Deep.
The intoxicating free spirit and soft-hearted toughness synonymous with the arty inner-city enclave pulses through writer and co-lead Monica Zanetti’s simply structured but insightful script. The premise of stereotypes being deconstructed and souls being bared over the course of a night time odyssey is not new; no less than Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy is the genre standard bearer and has inspired many imitators. But Zanetti and Leahy find a freshness in their characters and a frank honesty in the drama that is entirely engaging.
The protagonists are prim Northern Beaches ‘straightie’ Leah (a very fine Zara Zoe), outwardly composed but bravely facing her own young mortality; and, Caitlin (Zanetti, a natural and compelling presence), an out-and-proud lesbian struggling with her own post-breakup inner turmoil. When they ‘meet-cute’ over a CD dump-bin just off King St (one of many nods to local flavour that inner-west audiences will warm to), circumstances lead to a few lip-loosening ales at the Bank Hotel and the new friend’s evening of personal discovery takes flight.
The film symbolically references the outer shell which binds humanity in more ways than just it’s ironic title. Caitlin sports bandages on her forearms, suggesting she ‘cuts’ as an outlet for her anxiety; despite her healthy appearance, Leah is riddled with fatal melanoma cells (the story was inspired by Zanetti’s own struggle to overcome skin cancer). Zoe’s defining on-screen moment is a heartbreaking emotional meltdown in a cemetery, the honesty of their time together finally breaking down her defences.
Caitlin’s sexuality remains a non-issue for much of the film, with fleeting references and precise observations imbued with the same integrity that drives the rest of the production. A very sweet passage of dialogue between Zanetti and Robert Alexander as her broad-minded father is indicative of the film’s positive attitude to Caitlin’s life direction. Fittingly, both mainstream and LGBTIQ festivals have received Leahy’s sensitive, low-key take on the lesbian lifestyle warmly.
At a crisp 72 minutes, there is very little room for padding in the narrative; key moments, including a hilarious detour to a tattoo parlour and an awkward encounter with Caitlin’s ex, Isabel (Elizabeth Blackmore), are kept lean and played with a refreshing bluntness. An encounter with some street toughs in a children’s park feels stagey, if only because so much of what has unfolded previously rings convincingly true.
All tech departments deliver big-budget expertise on the low-budget shoot, particularly DOP Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson’s skilful use of after-dark light sources and Adrian Powers’ artful editing, which provides often lengthy passages of dialogue with crucial pacing.