Gregg Araki delivers his most challenging and arguably most mature film. He gradually layers in psychological and emotional complexity to explore how a childhood experience impacted two boys in profoundly different ways. A provocative, talked-about release for distribs not averse to tough subject matter.
Gregg Araki delivers his most challenging and arguably most mature film in “Mysterious Skin.” Adapting another writer’s material for the first time, the director teases the audience into expecting the kind of bad-boy excursion to the sexual outer limits that built his reputation. But then, he gradually layers in psychological and emotional complexity to explore how a childhood experience impacted two boys in profoundly different ways. By turns spiky and lyrical, this unsettling drama will be anathema to many audiences, but is bound to be a provocative, talked-about release for distribs not averse to tough subject matter.
In the vanguard of the New Queer Cinema of the early 1990s, Araki earned a following with the AIDS odyssey “The Living End,” gay teen movie “Totally F***ed Up” and criminal sex spree “The Doom Generation.” The director then seemed to lose his way, treading water with the prophetically titled “Nowhere” and the less accurately tagged “Splendor.”
Back after a five-year absence, Araki’s bracing new feature — adapted from Scott Heim’s 1995 novel — enters into the kind of dark teen territory chartered by Larry Clark and examines pedophilia with as much audacity as Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E.” or Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.”
Confronting without being explicit, the film deftly uses a subjective camera to avoid exploitation and adheres strictly to the youthful protagonists’ perspective, burrowing deeper inside them as the story evolves from its somewhat uncertain start.
During summer 1981 in Hutchinson, Kan., geeky 8-year-old Brian (George Webster) experiences a mental blackout. He is unable to recall five hours between sitting on the bench at his Little League game as it starts to rain and coming to with a nosebleed in his cellar at home. The incident prompts recurrent nightmares and bedwetting. As Brian develops into an awkward, bookish teen (played by Brady Corbet), he becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens.
That same summer, star player Neil (Chase Ellison) joins the team. He is immediately overcome with desire for the golden-haired coach (Bill Sage), who doubles as a de facto babysitter while Neil’s trashy mother (Elisabeth Shue) entertains her beaus. Playfulness quickly segues into romantic and erotic awakening in the boy’s relationship with the older man.
As Neil grows into a highly sexual teen (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he turns tricks with older men but locks out emotional involvement. Bound from a young age by dark secrets to his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), Neil follows her to New York, where he continues hustling in the far more perilous environment.
Meanwhile, Brian’s obsession with UFOs leads him to Avalyn Friesen (Mary Lynn Rajskub), an intense, physically handicapped kook who claims multiple alien abductions. Avalyn encourages him to search his dreams for the missing memory pieces.
A Little League team photo leads Brian to Neil . When they meet again, Neil helps coax Brian back through his childhood blackout in a potent final scene that deftly weaves together the drama’s disparate strands. Focused tightly on the two main characters, this extended act closes the movie on a resonantly disquieting note that paints an ugly picture of pedophilia without the need for sermonizing.
Not always the most elegant of filmmakers, Araki lets the early action vacillate in tone between the sitcommy scenes of Brian and his mother (Lisa Long), the more dreamy encounters between Neil and the coach, and occasional Lynchian interludes that border on surreal. But the director steadily strengthens his insight into the characters as the two boys’ parallel lives intersect and their scars are exposed.
This is a glimpse of childhood trauma and the darker side of adolescent experience that many will find upsetting or repellant. But Araki’s coverage of the most shocking scenes seems carefully choreographed to avoid placing the child actors in potentially damaging situations.
Performances from Corbet and — in the flashier role — Gordon-Levitt are nuanced and effective . Blond and handsome underneath his asexual exterior, Brian could easily have been a physically confident kid but seems to hide out behind clunky glasses and bulky clothing, weighted down by the unexplained holes in his early life. Neil is his polar opposite — cocky and charismatic, a sexual magnet described by formerly infatuated Wendy as having a black hole for a heart. He believes himself to be invincible at first but becomes increasingly aware,of his own vulnerability.
Playing Neil at age 8, Ellison incisively embodies precocious sexuality, aided by the device of using the child actor with his teen counterpart’s profane language and more worldly views expressed in voiceover.
Presented like a sporting god in the moustached Mark Spitz mold, Sage’s predatory coach is never villainized but shown through a veil of compromised childhood vision for exactly what he is. Rajskub makes an amusing, melancholy figure out of off-kilter Avalyn; Trachtenberg balances Wendy’s cool demeanor with a sense of caution and responsibility; and Jeff Licon is touching as Neil’s painfully lovelorn glam-goth gay best friend. Shue has warm moments as Neil’s distracted mother, though is perhaps a little scrubbed and toned to be believable as a supermarket cashier with a revolving boyfriend door.
While it lacks the striking visuals and bold color palette of earlier films like “The Doom Generation,” Araki and d.p. Steve Gainer use extensive closeups to good effect, ably reducing the distance between the audience and the story’s young protagonists. Mood is shaped nicely by a seductive underlay of ambient music from Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie.