The thing to know about Patrik-Ian Polk is that he’s a filmmaker who seems to really enjoy exploring the things that bind people as friends — and the things that test even the strongest friendships.
The growing tension between Seth Gilliam’s Marcus and Dwight Ewell’s Hill parallels the growing love between Marcus and Rockmond Dunbar’s Darby in Punks. And some of the best scenes in Noah’s Arc involve the four main characters just having a conversation about their lives.
So of course it makes sense that with The Skinny Polk would finally make a film that puts friendship at the center. The Skinny is about five Brown University grads who reunite in New York one year after graduating. Their lives have gone in different directions and it’s clear – although not explored nearly enough – that they are still struggling to find their place in the world. Anthony Burrell’s Kyle seems to be waiting around – and fucking around – until his trust fund kicks in, while Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman’s Joey feels trapped at the lower end of the economic ladder, which has made him cynical and insecure. Only Jussie Smollett’s Magnus seems to be focused and on his way, but appearances can be deceiving.
There are love interests played by eye candy like Dustin Ross, Robb Sherman, and Jennia Fredrique (grafting some nice dimension onto what is essentially an extended cameo), but those characters come in and out of the story mostly to create conflict that propels the friendship story forward.
But for me, that story never really soars the way I think is intended because the plot machinations kick in so quickly that the film never helps us understand who any of these people are beyond vague characterizations (Magnus is the traditional one, Kyle is the ho, etc). And that means that the film unfolds in a way that is more about hitting certain plot points and less about how the characters drive the story. Given Polk’s previous work creating believably warm and rich friendships, it’s a little disappointing that The Skinny is so overly concerned with plotting.
Worse, I don’t really understand why these five individuals are friends and Polk doesn’t give us enough of their backstory at Brown University to fill in the blanks. We don’t get to see enough of how this transitional period is affecting how each character is behaving (though there are hints in some places that I wish had been explored more deeply).
There’s a great scene at the end where the five main characters play some kind of truth game that is really the first time that all five characters share a scene long enough to develop a group rapport. But that’s really all we get.
The friendships just don’t have the same weight and specificity that made Punks and Noah’s Arc so special, which makes the way the Sebastian storyline unfolds fall pretty flat. I think we’re to assume that this weekend was a pivotal one for each of the characters, but it really only feels that way for Sebastian and Kyle and that’s because their story takes over the film 2/3 of the way through.
And that’s unfortunate because there’s a lot of really good things in this film, particularly the cast. Jussie Smollett and Anthony Burrell are both gorgeous and extremely talented finds who elevate every scene they’re in. Smollett plays Magnus with just the right amount of charm to keep the character’s self-righteous pretentions likeable and he sells the crying scenes like a pro. Burrell invests Kyle with a bit of melancholy from the very beginning that makes him more of a tragic figure than unlikeable. He’s relaxed, has charisma to burn and his last scene in the cab is a fine bit of nearly wordless acting. Chapman and Blake Young-Fountain nicely avoid stereotype at every turn, which is really quite remarkable, and Ross develops a low-key chemistry with Smollett that is quite lovely.
Ultimately, The Skinny is a vast improvement over Noah’s Arc: Jumping The Broom – which had the misfortune of having to wrap up a bunch of stuff that really needed 4 or 5 seasons to develop – but never achieves the depth and heart of Punks.
3 out of 5 stars.