If practice makes perfect, Gregg Araki (The Living End, The Doom Generation) is on his way to becoming a filmmaker of note. His past films were undermined by lurid self-indulgence and a punk amateur feel. They often fixated on attractive young actors (sometimes former teen stars) pointlessly engaging in gay sex and risky drug abuse. While Arakis craft as a director gradually improved, his subject matter remained static, relying on his infatuation with sensationalism. With Mysterious Skin, however, the director takes a huge leap forward and delivers a haunting, provocative portrait of sexual abuse.
In the summer of 1981, two 8-year-old Kansas boys, Neil and Brian, are molested by their Little League coach (the creepy Bill Sage). The experience sends the boys on two very different paths into adulthood. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes a reckless teenage hustler, turning tricks out of the local schoolyard. Brian (Brady Corbet) completely blocks out the event, and becomes naively asexual, believing the mysterious gaps in his memory are due to an alien abduction.
Adapted from the 1996 novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin is, in essence, a twisted coming-of-age story, tracing the indelible effects of pedophilia. Araki maintains his artistic fearlessness to good effect, tackling this uncomfortable subject head-on. His abuse scenes are as troubling as they are explicit. Close-ups of the child actors faces as they make pained and pleasurable expressions are cut against shots of body doubles, evoking an effective mix of fear, confusion and emotional detachment. It isnt always easy to watch and there are moments that will make your skin crawl, but Araki avoids eroticizing the boys experience. Instead, he treats molestation as a violent experience that haunts its victims while shaping their sexual identity.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Third Rock from the Sun) brings a brutal vulnerability to Neil, a swaggering teenager who views his violation as the truest expression of love hes ever experienced. His feigned indifference to life is tested when he sets off for New York City with his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), to become a male prostitute. A series of unsettling tricks reveals his devastating loneliness and an underlying death wish. In a particularly evocative scene, a downhearted john (Billy Drago) asks only that Neil massage his Kaposis Sarcoma lesions. Beneath a wall-sized reproduction of Vermeers painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, he whispers, Make me happy. Make me happy.
Corbets Brian, played with catatonic innocence, is equally powerful. Suffering from nosebleed-inducing nightmares, he desperately searches for the truth behind the five hours that disappeared from his life. On TV, he sees a crippled farm girl (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who claims to have been abducted, and seeks out her help. What he finds, however, is another victim, equally damaged by an unspoken trauma. Theres an overbearing sadness to Brians desperate self-deception, and it becomes inevitable that his quest for the truth will lead him to Neil. When the two finally confront their past, the films relentless sense of doom gives way, remarkably enough, to hope.
The films supporting cast is terrific, bringing a rare authenticity to their roles. Elizabeth Shue, who has been noticeably absent of late, is surprisingly effective as Neils casually negligent and sexually overt mother. Rajskub is uncomfortably effective as Brians needy fellow abductee. The child actors (Chase Ellison and George Webster) are nothing short of astonishing, though one cant help but wonder if their parents understood what kind of film they were signing onto.
Despite the storys sordid nature, Araki confronts his characters with such honesty and tenderness you cant help but be drawn into their wretched predicament. Coupled with an authentic sense of Americana, Mysterious Skin is both brazenly confrontational and thoughtful, resonating long after the final reel. Given todays political climate, its rare to see such daring filmmaking.
Showing at the Main Art Theater (118 N. Main, Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].