Bethan Gwyndaf, the protagonist of In My Skin, is a spectacular liar.
She lies to her best friends, her teachers, and the girl she develops a crush on, spinning tales of a better-than-normal home life that sound credible. Her mother works in human resources and her father is a tax officer, she says. She gets in trouble with them when she comes home too late, and they want to watch TV with her when she’s actually there. If Bethan has to back out of plans with a friend, it’s because her parents want to do something special with her, like go to the ballet.
But none of that is true. As displayed throughout the five episodes of this BBC series that will premiere July 30 in the U.S. on Hulu, Bethan’s mother is bipolar and constantly in and out of the hospital. Her father is a raging alcoholic who takes zero responsibility for anything. The only functioning, compassionate adult in Bethan’s household is Bethan, even though, at 16, she’s technically still a child whose biggest fear is that at some point, everyone will know her blessed home life is actually her curse.
That fear of being discovered is based on In My Skin creator Kayleigh Llewellyn’s own experience as a teenager concealing her bipolar mom’s condition. But even if viewers hit play on the first episode without knowing that its writer lived a version of what Bethan is living, they’ll be able to sense the authenticity via the vividness of the world Llewellyn has built, from the alternately gritty and gorgeous Cardiff setting, where Llewellyn herself grew up, to the hormonally driven cruelty that assumes various forms among Bethan’s schoolmates. The performance that Gabrielle Creevy gives as Bethan also goes a very long way toward making this series so relatable.
Creevy, who has made appearances in several U.K. series, establishes herself as a natural star here, dropping untruths off her tongue with a “no biggie” attitude and a smile that makes you almost buy what she’s selling, even when you’ve already borne witness to her burdens. When Bethan deals with her mother, Trina (Jo Hartley in a rigorous but thoroughly controlled performance), Creevy is at her most heartbreaking, alternating between showering gentleness on Trina when she’s in a calm space and recoiling when her mother’s mood swings into unrepentant nastiness. In the first episode, during a hospital visit, Trina calls her daughter a bitch and has to be restrained by nurses. Creevy immediately reverts back into a frightened little girl, her eyes betraying a helplessness that she knows intimately but still shocks her. Bethan walks every moment of every day on a tightrope between being almost okay and having her worst nightmares come true. Anyone who has ever had to care for a mentally ill loved one, especially a parent, will recognize themselves in every fraught expression that takes command of Creevy’s face.
Just as Bethan alters her persona from moment to moment, In My Skin skids from coming-of-age comedy to serious family drama and back again multiple times in each of its five episodes, without any tonal trip-ups. Some of the sharpest comedy comes from Di Botcher who plays Nan, Bethan’s paternal grandmother and the only grown-up in her life who understands what she’s dealing with and makes an effort to alleviate her stress. “All right,” Nan says just before she and Bethan enter the hospital for another visit, “let’s kick this in the dick, then.” The salt sprinkled throughout In My Skin makes the tough subject matter easier to digest, but no less brutal in its honesty.
Although the episodes are only a half-hour long, they are dense. A lot happens in each one, but under the supervision of director Lucy Forbes, whose credits include multiple episodes of The End of the F***ing World, they never feel overpacked. When scenes veer back and forth between reality and fantasy — there’s a laugh-out-loud sequence in which Bethan imagines a dance circle breaking out around her when she shows up at school with her hair down and contouring powder streaked across her face — they function not just as cheeky gimmicks but as illustrations of the duality that defines Bethan’s entire existence. (What actually happens when Bethan shows up to school looking like that? Her best friend Lydia, played by Poppy Lee Friar, tells her she looks like Saruman from The Lord of the Rings.)
As overcast as Bethan’s environment is — and, yes, that’s literally true, since she lives in Wales — there are moments of brightness that manage to sneak their way in before circumstances inevitably turn dire again. Every time something good happens for her, you practically want to beg the universe to please, give this girl a break and let her dwell in a small streak of sunshine for a little bit. Some coming-of-age stories are designed to show how important it is for its impressionable characters to learn life lessons. While In My Skin, which hopefully will yield a second season, doesn’t condone Bethan’s dishonesty, it suggests that dropping the deceit she wears like a suit of armor isn’t just the right thing to do. It may be the only way she can step outside of all those shadows and into something that resembles real light.
*A version of this article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!