Before I go further into my review, I’ll just get one thing out of the way. If you plan on seeing Where Hands Touch but haven’t seen the trailer yet, then my advice would be to skip the trailer and just see the film. The preview makes it seem like the film’s forbidden romance, which has been an understandable point of controversy, is its focal point. But as it turns out, Where Hands Touch is really about finding your identity and trying to survive in the midst of war.
Leyna (Amandla Stenberg), a biracial woman, tries to pass as a light-skinned German woman even though people like her school teacher discriminate her because of her skin color; Leyna’s mother (Abbie Cornish) creates false papers saying Leyna has been sterilized so that Leyna can avoid being eradicated; And Lutz (George MacKay), the boy Leyna falls for, is forced into the Hitler Youth organization and remains in it so he himself can avoid punishment and perhaps death. There’s even a small supporting character who’s a baker that tries passing as German to avoid his Jewish background being exposed.
Practically every character does what they can to try and live another day even if it means betrayal of their inner selves. That being said, the film might’ve been better served without the romance elements. Again, Lutz may have been forced to be a part of Hitler Youth which shows how evil tends to be systemic. Yet, Lutz falling for Leyna after he glances at her on the streets still rang completely false. If the forbidden romance was left out, then the moral complexity surrounding Lutz might’ve remained. Then again, he probably wouldn't have been necessary to the film’s plot if the romance was omitted.
But to be perfectly honest, the film’s highest point is the mother-daughter relationship between Leyna and her mother. Her mother may be strict to the point where she seems completely cold and detached but it’s because she fears for Leyna’s life and wants to ensure that Leyna doesn’t do anything to endanger herself. As Leyna’s mother, Abbie Cornish creates a three-dimensional portrait of a mother who showcases frustrated yet unconditional love. During a scene where Leyna and her mom become forcefully separated, it nearly got the man tears flowing and it’s mainly due to the impact of Cornish’s performance.
As for lead actress Amandla Stenberg, she does an amazing job and carries the picture with ease. Much like Everything, Everything, this film shows that she’s a definite leading lady since she can create a magnetic presence with simply a look. However, because her and George MacKay don’t have much chemistry, the film definitely would’ve worked better if it was more focused on the mother-daughter relationship and/or left Lutz out of the picture.
While movies centering around interracial relationships are typically within director Amma Asante’s wheelhouse, as Belle and A United Kingdom have shown, to have one in a film like this just doesn’t quite work. In the film’s second half where Lutz becomes an SS officer and Leyna is forced into a work camp, the doomed romance between them becomes even more questionable.
I know that the romance isn’t as much of a focal point as the trailer makes it seem to be but it’s still quite a bothersome point. I realize that Amma Asante wanted to focus on a different side to World War II and show us that Afro-German children, as well as Jewish people, were targeted by Nazis. However, having a biracial woman fall for a man trapped by the system that is trying to oppress her just doesn’t ring true.
Despite the misguided romance, Where Hands Touch still manages to be a well-acted historical drama that depicts World War II from a different point of view. It also retains the same theme of finding your identity that Amma Asante has demonstrated in her previous work. Asante is a filmmaker with a powerful, distinctive voice and there may be little doubt that it’ll be present in whatever projects she does going forward.