“Is he or isn’t he?” is the question driving the frost-bitten assumed-identity thriller “The Next Skin” — though even if answered, the matter of exactly who “he” is would continue to hang in the balance. Intriguing in its setup, as a surly, long-missing 17-year-old boy is reunited with a mother he claims not to remember, Isaki Lacuesta and Isa Campos’ co-directed effort finally has a few too many unknown factors to fully capture the imagination: With its characters held at arm’s length from us throughout, it’s not always easy to invest emotionally in the disentangling of their past. Reminiscent in its premise of Bart Layton’s fascinating 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” albeit with the melodrama ramped up a notch or two, this Spanish-Swiss co-production scooped multiple awards on home turf at the Malaga Film Festival; while a little slack in execution, it has a strong enough hook to snag modest international distribution.
Directly translated from its Spanish appellation, “The Next Skin” sounds more like a title for a body-horror story than this rather somber tale of small-community discord in the dingier stretches of the Spanish Pyrenees. The implication of skins being inhabited, shed and transferred does, however, metaphorically cover a range of ways to interpret Lacuesta and Campos’ knotty original narrative, co-written with Fran Araujo: Its tight-lipped teen protagonist Leo (or is it Gabriel?) can be read, by turns, as a traumatized victim of tragedy, a pathological opportunist, or a genuine blank slate who barely knows himself. Played with sullen, overcast presence by promising 21-year-old thesp Àlex Monner, he’s an awfully tough nut to crack — sustaining the film’s multiple ambiguities effectively enough, but inviting little sympathetic consideration from viewers.
Following an ambient opening shot of ice splintering and drip-thawing off a spring-warmed rock face — a pretty direct symbol for long-frozen secrets soon to come to light — a pre-credit sequence skips to a sunnier patch of southwest France, where Leo is threatening a suicidal jump from the roof of the orphanage that has housed him for a few years. The source of his angst: He’s a match for the missing-persons profile of Gabriel, a Spanish tyke who went missing in the mountains nine years before, allegedly following the death of his father in a hunting accident. Identified and claimed by his long-grieving mother Ana (Emma Suárez, soon to be more widely recognized by international arthouse patrons as the star of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Julieta”), he’s sent home despite his own lack of corresponding recognition or recollection.
Leo’s protective orphanage guardian Michel (Bruno Todeschini) believes the boy is suffering from dissociative amnesia; that may be a disorder long beloved of screenwriters, though the alternative theories entail equally liberal suspension of disbelief. (Leo’s tales of early teen life, spanning multiple countries and livelihoods to match his precocious tattoo collection, seem decidedly, perhaps deliberately, tall.) Back in his supposed native village — a seen-better-days ski resort that Ana yearns to leave — Leo either registers or feigns sporadic flashes of familiarity, while Ana optimistically looks past his prickliness to celebrate their reunion. Others are more skeptical: Enric (an under-challenged Sergi López), Ana’s new lover and former brother-in-law, is openly hostile, while Gabriel’s former best friend Joan (Igor Szpakowski) makes friendly but somewhat quizzical overtures.
As the question of Leo’s true identity hovers in the foreground, other supplementary lines of enquiry are opened up — particularly those relating to Gabriel’s dad and his still fog-shrouded death, about which no one seems willing to enlighten Leo. With potential past narratives of abuse, infidelity and even murder all on the table, the film has an heady amount of plot to juggle, and gives itself extraneous complications besides — a late-breaking sexual awakening on Leo’s part, while in itself enticing, is too abruptly introduced and summarily dismissed to gather much poignancy. The persistent presence of Michel, as a guide to Leo and a foil for Enric, is likewise more cluttering than it is illuminating. More affecting is the halting, gradually burgeoning bond between Leo and Ana, two plainly damaged souls who find a semblance of comfort in each other, whether blood ties exist between them or not; Suárez’s crumpled, warmly transparent performance is the film’s most considerable emotive asset.
Lacuesta, an accomplished sometime docmaker who had an enigmatic fest-circuit hit with 2011’s “The Double Steps,” directs for the first time with Campo — a writer of several previous Lacuesta joints, here making her helming debut. If their joint storytelling technique wants for discipline, they’re better at casting a clammy atmosphere of dread and desolation over proceedings. Abetted by occasionally bold sound design and the calm, hazel-toned gaze of Diego Dussuel’s camera, Lacuesta’s documentarian’s eye comes in most handy when detailing the everyday longings and frustrations of its hard-wearing characters: The dull, clanking thud with which Ana clears snow from ski-lift seats in an incidental glimpse of her working day says more about her life than any amount of unsavory intrigue.