Mysterious Skin
A Film directed by Gregg Araki
written by Araki from a novel by Scott Heim


The new film from Gregg Araki is challenging and provocative. It is difficult, graphic storytelling that doesn't shrink from it's unpleasant subject matter or pull its punches, and by doing so gives the real suffering of its main characters - and the real people who have survived similar experiences - some of the sympathy and dignity they deserve.

Mysterious Skin has earned an NC-17 rating in spite of the fact that all the sexuality is suggested rather than shown. As intended (and as true to the characters' experience of it) , the sexual acts depicted are disturbing, shocking and painful to watch rather than titillating. But the discomfort of confronting such histories is made worthwhile by the insight they offer into a part of the human experience.

Araki's screenplay is an adaptation of the "cult" novel by Scott Heim, esteemed by some young gay men as an accurate and unflinching description of aspects of their lives. But in addition to focusing on gay adolescents and young adults, as Araki has in many of his films, he goes beyond that subculture to explore the themes of exclusion and alienation, exploitation and abuse, and friendship and the possibility of redemption that can resonate with everyone.

The story follows two young men, Brian (Brady Corbet) and Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who grow up in the same area of Kansas, Neil in a small city, and Brian in a nearby small town. As young adults, they have taken very different paths. Brian lives at home with his conservative, straight-laced mother and attends community college. He is cautious and conventional - except for his conviction that he has been abducted by space aliens.

Neil, who has always realized that he is gay and whose single mother is a somewhat promiscuous waitress with a drinking problem, also lives at home, but spends his time hanging out with friends and turning tricks as a hustler. Eventually he leaves home to enter the much rougher world of New York City.

Their paths crossed in the late 1970s, when, at the age of about eight, they were on the same little league team - Neil the star player and Brian an inept bench-warmer. They haven't seen each other since, but their lives are connected by a secret they share, to which they have reacted in vastly different ways, and which haunts them both. Over the course of the film, the details of this secret and its effects on both boys are revealed in painful detail, culminating in a confrontation that is cathartic for both of them.

Sexual abuse - other than the spectacular cases that make the papers - is a largely ignored problem in our society. While blind surveys indicate that more than 15% of males admit to having suffered some form of sexual exploitation at some point in their youth, very few men are willing to talk openly about such incidents. In fact more than 33% of the men who remembered incidents said they had never disclosed them to any one.

And, at the same time Dr. William C. Holmes of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, author of a study of the aftereffects of sexual abuse, points out that, "when sexually abused boys are not treated, society must later deal with the resulting problems, including crime, suicide, drug use and more sexual abuse." He goes on to point out that, "earlier studies found that one-third of juvenile delinquents, 40 percent of sexual offenders and 76 percent of serial rapists report they were sexually abused as youngsters." and that, "the suicide rate among sexually abused boys was 1.5 to 14 times higher, and reports of multiple substance abuse among sixth-grade boys who were molested was 12 to 40 times greater."

These are exactly the kinds of profoundly dangerous and widely ignored consequences that Araki's film courageously seeks to address. But he addresses them not in terms of socio-psychological studies, but on the street level of the way they actually work out in people's lives.

Brian is the luckier of the two in some ways. His experience leads him to withdraw and his emotional development to arrest in pre-adolescence - but in such condition he doesn't pose a threat to others or to himself. Neil, on the other hand, whose abuse is more prolonged and more complex emotionally, becomes counter-phobically self-destructive and emotionally empty. He acts out his rage against himself and his situation in many self-destructive and reckless ways.

What carries the film beyond Movie-of-the-Week exploitative sensationalism is Araki's skills as a film-maker and his sensitive yet unflinching approach to the story. He takes the film beyond narrow narrative bounds.

At the same time that the situation can be seen on a literal and very specific level, as the story of events in two individual lives, responded to by two particular individuals, it can also be seen as an extreme case of universal responses to self-identification as an "outsider" and a "victim" - a common condition for nearly all adolescents, and a suppressed but still-active feature of the psychology of many adults.

That the abuse in this case is sexual makes the situation much more profound and dramatic, and the plight of Neil and Brian is clearly of great concern to the filmmaker. But Araki is equally interested in the psychological damage both boys suffer not at the hands of their abuser, but through the benign neglect and the conspiracy of silence (in which they are willing participants) of those they love and trust, who should be protecting them, and of their larger community which was unable to protect them, and unable to respond effectively once the damage was done.

Human beings damage one another in many ways - mostly out of their own fears, which make emotionally honest interchanges impossible. Those who are so damaged (which includes nearly every character in this film, and by implication, nearly everyone) go on to inflict some form of damage on those around them.

Araki is suggesting that only by undertaking the difficult and painful journey though recognition of our own pain and fear and acceptance of our own damaged condition can we hope to achieve any sort of cleansing and renewal and any chance for redemption. And only by recognizing the extent and significance of such damage to ourselves and those around us can we begin to heal the wounds or hope to diminish the painful cycle.

This is not a cheerful message - although it is a hopeful one - and Araki deserves credit for even trying to make films about such important and difficult subjects in the era of the Comic-Book-Adaptation-Blockbuster. Many of the issues dealt with here - the situation of the outsider (and especially the gay outsider) in society; the complexities of sexual attraction, identity and behavior; the search for emotional connection - are apparently common themes in all of Araki's work.

The film is not altogether successful. There are several relatively emotionally-healthy characters in the film including Neil's friends Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Eric (Jeff Licon), but Araki doesn't seem to be able to explain them and doesn't bother to try. A reasonably well-balanced outlook doesn't seem to hold the same fascination for him that the desperation of imbalance does.

Certainly Neil's life-and-death struggle is more dramatic (and therefore more suited to dramatic storytelling) than Eric's focused attempt to educate himself through college or Wendy's move to establish herself as an independent adult in New York, but Araki weakens his portrayal of the depths of Brian's and Neil's feeling by ignoring parallel - if less sensational - depths in Eric and Wendy.

In telling the often harrowing story, Araki gets help from an accomplished group of actors. Most astonishing - and a particular credit to Araki's skills in working with actors and constructing a narrative - is the work of the two young actors Chase Ellison and George Webster, who play Neil and Brian respectively as eight-year-olds.

Their scenes must have been shot out of sequence and without context, with the narrative line established later, by the juxtaposition of sequences shot at different times and under different conditions, during the editing process. These young actors can not have understood what they were being called on to act out - indeed, with the film's NC-17 rating, they won't be old enough to see their work for the best part of a decade - but Araki manages to elicit naturalistic performances that are viscerally effective in their own right and strongly support those of the adult actors.

Among the adult actors, it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil who is called upon to carry the film. That he - best known for the light-comedy role he played in Third Rock From the Sun - should be able to embody such a complex and unhappy character as Neil came as a pleasant surprise. Honestly portraying Neil's least admirable qualities, yet making him sympathetic - and more, making him, in the end, even admirable - Gordon-Levitt shows fine acting skills that will hopefully lead him to other interesting roles.

Jeff Licon gives a scene-stealing performance as Neil's admiring friend Eric, embodying the attraction that the reasonable often harbor for the recklessly daring. Licon's obvious concern for and emotional connection to his friend, his different approach to his self-chosen outsider status, and his self-deprecating sense of humor make him an ideal foil for Neil, and it is one of the few failings of the film (in the writing, not in Licon's performance, which is delightful) that more was not made of this contrast.

Michelle Trachtenberg's Wendy is also a bit under-written and under-used. She's an interesting character, with the courage to be independent and different and the sensitivity to see past Neil's self-destructive, sometimes cruel bravado to the person within. Her robust contrarianism challenges Neil's passive-aggressively rebellious sexual acting-out, but again, this interesting divergence of character isn't explored as fully as it might have been.

Bradey Corbet, as Brian, has to create a believable character out of someone who is as self-effacing and withdrawn as Neil is extroverted. It is much more difficult to play such a "featureless" character, and Corbet does a fine job - especially in the later scenes where the character begins to loosen the rigid control he has exerted over his personality for so many years. Brian's breaking down of the literal denial of his experience is the key that finally allows Neil to face and name his own, and Corbet makes Brian's displacement of the almost un-endurable confrontation onto a fantasy scenario completely believable.

Elizabeth Shue is effective as Neil's needy, immature mother (but we already know she has great acting skills). Bill Sage invests the child-abusing "Coach" with a surprising and disturbing amount of complex and sympathetic humanity. That he can create a character like this in a film on this subject without creating a two-dimensional "bogey-man" is a credit to his acting, and to Araki's restraint in crafting the script and in directing the film.

Also notable is the performance of Mary Lynn Rajskub as Avalyn Friesen, a woman whose own arrested development becomes the reflection in which Brian begins to see his way to the truth. Rajskub - who has appeared in television sketch comedy and in the series 24 - completely disappears into her role here to create a supporting character who adds significant dimension to the story.

The production values are low-budget - but who cares? This is a film about raw emotion and real suffering, not about visual glitz. Not that Araki doesn't go out of his way to frame effective shots against visually arresting backgrounds - but he clearly realizes that what is important here is not the "polish" but the integrity.

While allowing himself the kind of immediacy and naturalism embraced by the new wave directors of the 60s (whom he obviously admires), he also shows great technical savvy in seamlessly stitching together elements - particularly those involving the young actors in sexual behavior as pointed out above - to make coherent and arresting scenes. It is worth noting that Araki edited the film himself.

His work with cinematographer Steve Gainer and his design team has created an ambiance for the film that is both dreamy and slightly nightmarish. It takes the edge off of the brutality and cruelty of some of the scenes, but at the same time makes them more disturbing because of being slightly more palatable. The original score by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie is effective as background to lives like these.

Mysterious Skin is a multi-leveled, provocative film that, while it may not be easy to watch, provides plenty to think about. Araki is an accomplished film maker who clearly sees his craft as more meaningful and significant than simple escapism - closer to literature than to the comic book. For those who value thoughtful, carefully-crafted films that explore important and controversial subjects, directors like Araki and films like Mysterious Skin give hope that there's a whole community out there who believe that - even in summer - there's more to life than POW! WHAM! BIFF!

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?