(NR) 4 StarsEd Johnson-Ott
Like My Own Private Idaho and Stand By Me, Mysterious Skin features a group of young friends functioning as a family; hanging out, experiencing small-scale adventures and taking care of each other when needed. In this case, two of the kids were sexually molested when they were smaller. How they deal with that as they inch towards adulthood is at the core of this harrowing, but touching, film. Be ready, several of the scenes are difficult to watch. Director Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Totally Fucked Up, The Living End) deals with sexual matters bluntly. Though there are no displays of genitalia, he makes it quite clear what's happening during the sexual encounters, whether they are between a young hustler and a brutal client or a Little League coach and an 8-year-old boy. The filmmaker clearly shot and edited the vignettes so that the child actors did not have to do or say anything inappropriate. We, however, get the full impact of the scenes.
Don't let that scare you away. Mysterious Skin is as much about friendship, compassion, growth and the resiliency of the spirit as it is about molestation. The film deals with its characters with great affection without ever succumbing to sentimentality.
Araki wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Scott Heim. Set in a small Kansas town in the '80s and early '90s, it follows the lives of two boys, Brian Lackey (played as a child by George Webster and later by Brady Corbet) and Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison, and later, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Brian suffers from nightmares and nosebleeds. He believes it stems from something that happened to him when he was a tiny, timid eight-year-old back in the summer of 1981. He can't remember the incident; he only knows that he was found afterwards cowering in a basement. After exposure to lots of tabloid TV, he has decided that he was abducted by aliens.
Neil knows what happened to him in the summer of '81. His Little League coach (Bill Sage) showered him with junk food and affection and then molested him. Now Neil finds himself drawn to older guys. He picks up cash hustling at a local park; soon he will move to New York City and go full-time. Neil is charismatic - his expressionless face and lack of affect is perceived as cool - and popular, though his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) states, "Where most people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole." Regardless, his pal Eric (Jeff Licon) treats him like some higher form of life.
That's all the information you need, I think. Certainly, you've already surmised that Brian and Neil will meet and that the meeting will result in revelations. Or who knows, maybe the aliens will come back to pick up Brian.
I just hope you don't let the prospect of a few squirm-inducing scenes keep you from seeing this movie. If you do, you'll miss a carefully-drawn dual character study with a surprisingly (and pleasantly) dreamy tone. The acting is fantastic. Buffy the Vampire Slayer vet Michelle Trachtenberg gives a rich performance as the best friend, portraying Wendy as a warm, but smart young woman who knows exactly what she is dealing with. Bill Sage is remarkable as the Little League coach. He is at once (or close to it) charming, creepy and pathetic as the calculating predator. What a brave actor. And Third Rock from the Sun alum Joseph Gordon-Levitt is stunningly effective as Neal. To take a character with a flat affect and blank face, and make us relate to him is a real achievement.
Mysterious Skin doesn't take the subject of child abuse and wrap it up in a tidy package. It simply reminds us that, no matter what happens to them, people find a way to go on. And sometimes, they find a way to cope, usually with a little help from others.