Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin takes viewers to places where few films have gone before. If that sounds like a cliché, I challenge you not to be moved by Araki’s first film in several years. In the midst of a tide of recent movies about intergenerational sex, consensual and not – from LIE to The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things – the astounding Mysterious Skin stands apart for its dazzling visual style, its empathy, candidness, moral complexity and, most of all, for telling its story from the kids’ point of view.
“It’s everywhere,” says Araki about adults having sex with children, “especially now with the Michael Jackson trial. And actual cases of abuse are so widespread but it’s almost as if we’ve become desensitized to it. When someone admits to being abused, it’s almost like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Pass the salt.'”
Araki cuts through the hysterical ravings of the mainstream media and restores emotional power to these events, relationships and their aftermath by keeping us firmly inside the minds of two boys (between the ages of eight and 18) who were molested by their baseball coach (Bill Sage): Neil (Chase Ellison/Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who remembers everything, and Brian (George Webster/Brady Corbet), who blacked out and becomes obsessed with the belief that he was abducted by aliens.
Brian and Neil could not be more different from each other. Neil is a hypersexual kid who claims to have lusted after his coach (largely a friendly but fleeting presence known only as “coach” throughout the film) from the moment he laid eyes on him. After that summer of being coach’s special boy, all of Neil’s sexual boundaries crumble and he sets forth on a life of hustling and sexual manipulation that inevitably – in movie logic – leads to disaster. By contrast, Brian is a very quiet, shy kid who only remembers waking up in the cellar with a nosebleed and missing five hours of his life.
Brian was taken home by Neil and coach one night. Paedophilia movies usually have absent fathers, but Mysterious Skin trumps them all by making Brian’s absent dad directly responsible for his having to get a ride home with coach.
As a teenager Brian begins a quest with the help of a fellow alleged alien abductee named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to track down a boy he remembers from his nightmares – Neil – and find out what happened to them.
A labour of love, Mysterious Skin is Araki’s first film since the disappointing Splendor from 1999, which came after half-a-dozen surreal, anarchic classics of southern California queer teen angst such as Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere, and the widely-praised HIV-positive road movie, The Living End. With Mysterious Skin, Araki has received the most positive reviews of his career, with many critics lauding the film as one of the year’s best and praising him for exhibiting a new maturity. However, despite being his first adaptation of preexisting material – the acclaimed novel by fellow traveller Scott Heim – Mysterious Skin has the dark comedy, the compassion for damaged young people and the fascination with the supernatural prevalent in his previous work.
According to Araki, his earlier work has more “postmodern irony, it winks at the audience. But Mysterious Skin is much more emotionally direct, there isn’t that extra layer.”
If the candy-coloured nihilism of his older work comes off as occasionally glib or forced despite its pleasures, here Araki bathes his characters in respect. Brian is as soft as Neil is hard, and his awkwardness and insecurity plays itself out beautifully in his moving relationship to his peach and peanut butter pie-baking mom (Lisa Long). His struggle to figure out what happened so that he can move on and finally grow up is wrenching, but always treated with the right blend of humour and pathos.
Speaking about one of Brian’s memories of seeing a UFO from his roof, Araki says, “I tried to represent the UFO the way that an eight-year-old kid would see it, out of a cheesy movie, but it becomes totally overwhelming for him.” For Araki, UFOs are fascinating for being larger-than-life vehicles for people to evade their realities. For Brian, the alibi of alien abduction obscures what really took place.
While the situations described and represented in the film are as shocking as any of the atrocities cited by alleged victims in the influential documentary Capturing The Friedmans, Araki is both more graphic and more discreet. Neil speaks plainly about his sexual experiences as a kid and his feelings for coach; he epitomizes directness, and this can be quite unsettling when so many films on this subject have played coy. However, when visually representing the actual sex scenes, Araki avoids being explicit, instead shooting everything from the kids’ subjectivities and using creative editing. By holding back, the film is even more powerful. “We filmed the actual scenes in fragments because we didn’t want to traumatize the kids,” says Araki.
“I’ve been very shocked that there hasn’t been more of a controversy. Obviously there are some assholes on the religious right who are up in arms. But in general, it’s been a very positive reaction.” Araki feels the greatest satisfaction when audience members – most memorably Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, who scored the film – leave the theatre as devastated as he was when he first read the novel. “[Guthrie] was literally speechless.”
Mysterious Skin has the power to haunt you long after you leave the theatre.