Based on the improbable-but-true saga of Sandra Laing, the dark-complected daughter of light-complected Afrikaner parents in South Africa during the apartheid era, Skin is a surreal melodrama of arbitrary racial labeling that estranged a woman from herself, her family of origin, and the father of her children.

As told by director Anthony Fabian, Skin is both exasperatingly choppy and exceptionally moving.

By the time she was 15, Sandra (Sophie Okonedo) was categorized as every color on the South African racial spectrum. Might she be the product of her mother's illicit affair? A paternity test proved otherwise. Nevertheless, the government initially labeled this daughter of whites as "colored" (mixed race).

Because apartheid prohibited "colored" and white people from inhabiting the same neighborhood, much less the same house, Sandra's parents petitioned for reclassification. A geneticist arguing on their behalf suggested that because of the heterogenous genetic makeup of South Africans, it was likely Sandra's parents were of mixed racial heritage. Because Sandra's parents were fair-skinned, she was recategorized as white.

This domestic and political horror story plods from outrage to outrage. Yet Okonedo's Sandra and Alice Krige as her mother, Sannie, are undeniably touching in their intimacy and their defiance of the bureaucrats who would come between them. No matter that their skin is of different shades, they are the same blood. For Sannie it's simple. Her daughter is her daughter and nothing can come between them. Her husband is more conflicted.

Mr. Laing, played by a rigid Sam Neill, loves his daughter but believes in apartheid. His way of resolving the dilemma is to give Sandra skin-lightening creams and encourage her to date white boys, for whom her color is an issue. When she dates a black youth, her father has her arrested and jailed.

A caramel in a world of marshmallows, Sandra crosses the color line to marry - and becomes a marshmallow in a world of caramels. Estranged in two worlds, the only place she is at home is with her children.EndText

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.