Mysterious Skin

Strand Releasing
& TLA Releasing,

Screenplay/Director: Gregg Araki.
Based on the novel
by Scott Heim

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elizabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill Sage, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Richard Riehle

Unrated, 99 minutes

The Wonder Years
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, November, 2005


A few issues back, I reviewed Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up (1993) and reflected on the cautious admiration I've always felt towards the out director's work. His early films were raw and unpolished, recalling the agitprop of Godard and 60s Marxist cinema. He liked to shock; sometimes gratuitously, but always with the aim of challenging a complacent audience. A true guerrilla filmmaker, Araki used the screen to express his rage.

Now his work has matured, while still maintaining its edge. His latest, Mysterious Skin, is his breakthrough film, claiming accolades from the mainstream press, landing on several ten best lists, even earning the coveted "thumbs up" from Roger Ebert.

Mysterious Skin, based on the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim, tackles the ugly theme of pedophilia from an unusual perspective. The setting is a small Kansas town. Brian Lackey (played first by George Webster as a boy and then Brady Corbet as a teenager) is found huddled in the basement crawlspace, his nose bleeding. In the opening narration he claims to have lost five hours of his life one day when he was eight years old. As a teen, he is convinced that his frequent nightmares and nosebleeds are the result of an alien abduction. Though Brian remains confused about these missing hours, the audience soon realizes that the cause was something else entirely.

That same summer, Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison and later Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was molested by his Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage). Neil grows up to be a hustler, first at the local playground, and then later in New York City. His clients are always older men; his first trick (Richard Riehle) even has the word "Daddy" hanging in his car. Neil's childhood ordeal has made him cold, reckless and self destructive. "Where most people have a heart," says his pal Wendy, "Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole."

Both boys are on separate journeys, each dealing differently with their shared childhood abuse. Neil has forgotten how to love. His coach remains the great love of his life; he knows that what the older man did was wrong but he still romanticizes it. Brian, on the other hand, cannot deal with the reality of what happened and escapes into a fantasy world - he wasn't molested, he was probed by aliens. Brian will meet a local farmgirl who also claims to have been abducted. Their relationship is both comic and touching. Ultimately, she provides the clues that lead Brian, who played on that same baseball team, to Neil and the truth.

I mentioned gratuitous shocks in Araki's early work. There are none here. The abuse is not shown in any graphic detail but it is clear what is happening. Araki is tackling a taboo subject while exploring its devastating consequences. The audience is involved in Neil's violation; we feel the boy's complicated response through a clever use of subjective camerawork. Neil has no father and often witnessed his mother's trysts with countless boyfriends. As a boy, he was already in love with "The Marlboro Man" and the coach was, in some ways, his dream come true as well as a missing father figure. The director's approach to this material is not simplistic; prepare for some uncomfortable viewing.

As adults, we often romanticize our youth; even the bad memories are sometimes filtered through a halcyon haze. In spite of the dark themes of sexual abuse and loss of innocence, Mysterious Skin actually sparkles with the nostalgia of childhood. Call it To Kill A Mockingbird on acid.

I never thought I would ever find warm and fuzzy moments in an Araki film, yet he has somehow managed this despite its subject. But this is not The Summer of '42; the molestation and the scenes of Neil working as a hustler are among the most harrowing I have ever seen. A brutal rape/beating eventually sends Neil back to Kansas but there is a tender moment, earlier, when Neil encounters a trick who is dying of AIDS. I was almost reduced to tears when the man just wanted his back rubbed because he "really needs to be touched." Araki has stopped trying to be Godard and has emerged as a major filmmaker.

3rd Rock From The Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt is amazing as Neil. Gordon-Levitt has emerged as an actor to watch, taking on controversial roles in independent films rather than attempting stardom ala Ryan Reynolds. Though often silent, his face is a roadmap of emotions. We have seen young men like him in Araki's films before - young and nihilistic - but this time the director has found an actor more than able to breathe life into the character. Brady Corbet also shines as the shy, confused and asexual Brian. Their final confrontation, when Brian ultimately learns the truth, is an acting tour-de-force.

The DVD contains an illuminating director/actor commentary and a hour long segment, directed by Araki, where the two lead actors read selections from the original novel. This disc is not only recommended, it is essential for any library of queer films. Don't miss this one.


More On Gregg Arakit
The Living End
Totally F***ed Up

More On Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Latter Days

Bill Sage also appears in:
High Art
The New Twenty

Richard Riehle also appears in:
The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green
The Fluffer
Choose Connor
Bear City 2: The Proposal