Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin tells the parallel stories of two boys growing up in a small town in Kansas in the 1980s and early 1990s. One, Brian Lackey (played first by George Webster and then in his late teenage years by Brady Corbet), believes that the nightmares and nosebleeds that afflict him throughout adolescence are results of an alien abduction that occurred in the summer of 1981, when he was a shy, frail eight-year-old. That same summer, Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison, and later, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was molested by his Little League coach (Bill Sage).
From the beginning, we suspect a connection between the boys' experiences, and part of the film's narrative momentum comes from their rediscovery of each other after 10 years. In that time, Lackey, nerdy and socially awkward, has become obsessed with uncovering the truth, while McCormick, in flight from their hometown and his own past, has become a gay prosti-tute, first at the local playground and then in New York.
Its subject matter may be grim -- Araki addresses McCormick's early and later sexual experiences with unflinching candor -- but Mysterious Skin is infused with remarkable tenderness and beauty. These are not words you usually associate with this director, whose previous films -- including The Living End, The Doom Gener-ation and one whose title I cannot quote here -- often valued shock over feeling and provocation over compassion. What those movies did have, sometimes to a fault, was a fearless, reckless honesty that Araki has not lost, even as he has acquired a deeper sense of story, character and emotion. Mysterious Skin is the work of a onetime bad boy who has grown up without losing his ardent sympathy for the wildness of youth. It's also one of the best movies I've seen so far this year.
Any film that deals with the sexual abuse of children risks being misunderstood, especially when it appears to depict that abuse on screen. It is clear that Mysterious Skin was written, shot and edited to protect the child actors from saying or doing anything inappropriate, but the audience nonetheless feels the full effect of McCormick's violation. Even more uncomfortably, since we see it from his point of view, we are privy to his complicated emotional response to the coach (whose name is never given), who is at once the predator who stole McCormick's innocence, the father he never had and the great love of his life.
The awfulness of these contra-dictions follows McCormick as he grows up into a cold, beautiful hustler. His clients are older men (the first, a traveling snack-food salesman, has the word Daddy hanging from his rear-view mirror), and his transactions with them are both reminders of Coach and efforts to take belated revenge on him.
"Where most people have a heart," says his best friend, Wendy Peterson (Michelle Trachtenberg), "Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole." McCormick is affectless, remote and casually self-destructive, but charismatic and cool enough to keep Wendy and another friend, Eric (Jeff Licon), on his side, along with his doting, dissolute mother (Elisabeth Shue).
Gordon-Levitt -- whom you may, if you look hard enough,
recognize as the boy alien from the sitcom Third Rock From the Sun -- conveys the dimensions of Neil's damaged personality with ferocious understatement. A lesser actor -- and a less confident filmmaker -- might have made him into a psychological case study, but the power of the character comes not from his status as a victim but from his resilient individuality.