Let me mention the two things that may turn people off from watching Mysterious Skin. That way, you can decide whether you want to continue reading this review.
It deals unflinchingly with the effects of child molestation. And it’s directed by Gregg Araki.
Still here? Okay.
Fametracker describes Araki’s films as "pretention-a-thons". The first half hour of The Living End seethes with so much exaggerated art cool, it’s enough to make eyes roll.
(Gay haters == bad. We get it!)
I didn’t get past the detatched head of Dustin Ngyeun vomitting in Doom Generation to explore Araki’s other works, and I was actually hesitant to watch Mysterious Skin.
I’m glad to report Mysterious Skin bears no resemblance to either The Living End nor Doom Generation. Sure, there’s disenfranchised youth and gay sex (some of it brutal) in this film, but that’s about as close the similiarities get.
Adapted from the novel by Christopher Heim, Mysterious Skin begins with a voice-over by Brian (Brady Corbet), trying to puzzle out why he can’t remember five hours of his childhood. He thinks he was abducted by aliens, and after seeking out a woman who claims to have been abducted herself, he seeks the boy he thinks was with him.
The other boy is Neil (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), the best player in a little league team. Even at that young age, Neil felt desire for his coach, who ends up molesting him. Neil develops feelings for the coach that carry on as he becomes a hustler.
Neil, of course, holds the key to why Brian can’t remember those five hours, which haunt him all the way into adulthood.
It’s an uncomfortable story. Araki demonstrates all too well how Neil’s desire for his coach gets twisted. The glimmer of consensuality in the young Neil only magnifies the injustice of discovering an essential part of his identity at the hands of a criminal.
And that recklessness would end up hurting Neil at the end of the story.
Brian, on the other hand, retreats and supresses all desire. The flamboyant Eric, who is a friend of Neil’s, also befriends Brian and describes him as "asexual". When Brian’s abductee friend attempts to make a move on him, he draws away violently.
Brian’s sadness stems from knowing something bad happened to him during the five hours he can’t remember.
Mysterious Skin is an exhausting, disturbing film. It may be too easy to fault Araki for stylizing the molestation of the young boys in the story. At the same time, that stylization captures the conundrum of Neil’s sexuality.
He’s too young to vocalize his homosexuality, and yet he’s forced to face it against his will.
Gordon-Leavitt and Corbet throw themselves into their incredibly demanding roles. I can’t imagine what it took for these actors to get into character.
Mysterious Skin is a good film. It may not be something you actually like, but it conveys such devistation, it’s difficult to dismiss.