Gregg Araki made a name for himself with gay-themed, rather anarchic generation-X flicks like The Doom Generation and Nowhere, but 2005’s Mysterious Skin sees him in a more controlled mood. It’s definitely a good thing and it’s probably no coincidence this film is his only novel adaptation, something that helps keep his more random ideas in check.
As a boy, Neil was abused by his little league coach, leaving him rather confused about boundaries and what’s suitable behaviour. Now in his late teens (and grown into the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Neil is defiantly gay and working as a hustler in the small Kansas town he grew up in. However he has dreams of making it in the big city, which will hopefully also allow him to forget what happened to him as a child.
Around the same age is the nerdy Brian (Brady Corbet), who is obsessed with gaps in his memories of his youth, and as a result becomes increasingly convinced he was abducted by aliens. He realises that Neil, who was on his baseball team as a kid, may be the key to the truth. When they finally meet, the reality turns out to be very different to what Neil was expecting, exposing the childhood scars they both share.
A haunting film that deals with childhood sexual abuse in a surprisingly raw and un-melodramatic fashion, Araki’s film will stay with you long after you’ve watched it. It’s a movie that understands that while childhood scars inform who you become as an adult, it doesn’t necessarily mean you spend your entire life as a victim, and indeed it can lead to behaviour that in isolation seems selfish and dangerous. It’s a subject matter that could easily be hard to watch, and indeed there are fairly large chunks of the movie that are unpleasant and challenging, but this is leavened by moments of humour and real verve.
It’s not a fun film, but it is a powerful one, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt giving a superb performance as Brian. Indeed it was Mysterious Skin that showed people he wasn’t just the kid from Third Rock From The Sun, he was one of the best actors of his generation. Brian is a potentially divisive figure, as while he’s the victim of abuse, he’s grown into someone who could easily be seen as a bit of an asshole. In less talented hands, it would have been a problem, but Gordon-Levitt balances it well, so that Brian’s journey is a misguided fight to prove he’s alive and vital rather than being purely self-destructive.
Mysterious Skin may not sound like a lot of fun – and indeed some of it isn’t – but it’s just the sort of film that rewards those prepared to let it in.
Overall Verdict: A powerful, disturbing, vital and even sometimes funny movie, with a superb performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as gay hustler Brian.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac