In his adaptation of Scott Heim's novel Mysterious Skin, director Gregg Araki delivers an indie triumph with material most would consider untouchable. The film—rated NC-17 by the MPAA—concerns pedophilia and includes scenes of sex and violence that are invariably disturbing, but Araki handles them with care, restraint, and unnerving thoughtfulness, resulting in one of the most powerful films of the year.
As the story opens, two eight-year-old boys in the heartland play for the same little league team. One, named Brian (George Webster), recalls spotting a UFO, blacking out, and suffering unexplained nosebleeds. The other, Neil (Chase Ellison), becomes the boytoy of his coach (Bill Sage), who maintains a seductive, well-stocked rumpus room. As the story flashes forward, teenage dropout Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)--harbors conflicted feelings about that sexual initiation, but his self-destructive lifestyle as a gay hustler reflects his lingering taste for older men. Brian, now played by Brady Corbet of Thirteen, sets out to solve the mystery of his "lost time," an investigation that introduces him to a purported alien abductee (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and inevitably leads him back to Neil.
Mysterious Skin doesn't operate so much on suspense as a sick inevitability. These characters on a path to disaster are always clearly drawn and therefore hugely sympathetic. Gordon-Levitt—best known for his work on the sitcom Third Rock From the Sun—immerses himself in the cynical and reckless abandon of Neil, and Corbet keeps his shambling shtick just reigned in enough to be more affecting than off-putting. Each character has a few dramatic turning points (most notably Neil's encounter with a sad trick who represents a ghost of Neil's future), culminating in a shared epiphany that packs an emotional wallop. The sterling ensemble—including Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Jeffrey Licon—pulls its weight.
Araki's approach is occasionally stilted, but more often ingenious in its clear-eyed appropriation of Heim's imagery: the half-forgotten-dream quality of the child-abuse scenarios. Neil's memories consciously seize on upbeat images, like the rain of Fruit Loops—candy-colored holes—that, in hindsight, take on a mocking sexual symbolism. Likewise, Brian's alien-abduction metaphor, with its implicit violation terrors and stolen time, captures the maddening frustration of a past that resists reclamation or resolution. Though the scot-free pedophile, in absentia, invites blame, Araki embraces the mysteries of human sexuality with a refreshing lack of hysteria and a brace of empathy.
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