Review of Mysterious Skin


Movie Review: "Mysterious Skin"

-- Rating: Not rated
Length: 105 minutes
Release date: May 6, 2005
Directed by: Gregg Araki
Genre: Drama

Poignant is a term misused by movie critics on a regular basis, being slathered upon humdrum dramas that neither deserve nor resemble it in the slightest. A word so powerful should be reserved for films that shelter our hearts while exposing humanity's biggest faults. In short, it should be saved for films like "Mysterious Skin."

Based on the novel by Scott Heim, "Mysterious Skin" follows the lives of two boys who together experienced something so vile, so painful, and so devastating that it shaped their destinies. Yet, it shapes them so distinctly that few would guess they'd ever shared anything in common.

Chase (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet) couldn't be more different. One lives in New York City, drifting through relationships with older men when he isn't selling himself to them for money. The other barely exists, hiding from the world behind his over-sized glasses and ignoring relationships to the point of being asexual. One remembers the past; the other remembers only glimpses of what he chalks up to an alien encounter.

The stark contrast to the characters as boys is sickening. The two are normal, average, middle-class kids on a summer baseball team. Due to their unsettled home lives, they are easily groomed by their popular coach. He brings them home and gives them video games to play. The audience sits by helplessly, knowing what is eventually going to happen. While Chase mistakes the abuse for affection, Brian winds up half-naked and bleeding in his basement without any concrete memory of what happened.

Like the book the movie was based on, "Mysterious Skin" shows the evolution of two broken souls. Instead of exploiting victims of childhood sexual abuse, it explores the real consequences. We see the confusion in both boys as they grow and mature and how the experience taints each of their lives from the most basic to the most significant ways.

Brian is plagued by memories of alien abduction and what he believes to be brutal experimentation. Chase struggles to experience real emotion, putting himself in increasingly dangerous situations in order to make that happen. It's only after Chase is savagely assaulted and returns home that Brian sees his childhood friend, recognizing him as a companion in his strange dreams, and then sets about trying to unravel the mystery of what really happened to them that summer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet carry this movie in the palms of their hands. If it weren't for the young stars' abilities to play their roles expertly, the scenes wouldn't be believable and tolerable. The subject matter is too sensitive and too difficult to explore without a steady guide to lead the way.

Gregg Araki provides that guide. The American director made his debut in 1987 and later became identified with gay and lesbian culture. His "Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy" consisted of "Totally F***ed Up" in 1993, "The Doom Generation" in 1995, and "Nowhere" in 1997. All three movies placed an intense focus on teenage sexuality and the various emotional ties forged through shared physical experiences.

During the making of "Mysterious Skin," Araki placed himself in the roles of screenplay writer, director, and producer. His work on his earlier teen trilogy prepared him for dissecting Chase's complicated development as an abuse survivor. Though neither book nor movie make the case that his childhood history of abuse caused him to be a homosexual, it uses an expert hand in demonstrating how damaging the experience was to his future relationships.

Done incorrectly, the film would have had homosexuality seen as a negative consequence. That could have been an affront not only to the original novel but also to gay and lesbian abuse survivors. As it was, Araki was able to tread that line carefully enough to distinguish between unnatural sexual urges and unnatural emotional ones. Gordon-Levitt was also able to rise to the challenge of avoiding writing homosexuality off as a symptom of childhood trauma.

"Mysterious Skin" doesn't have the happy ending that many viewers hope to see. There is no miracle cure for either Chase or Brian's problems. If there was, the message of the movie would be lost on audiences tricked into believing that childhood sexual trauma is something that can be easily overcome when it's not. It does, however, show the glimmer of promise in coming together with other survivors to face the reality of abuse and the effects it can have on victims' futures.

Rating 4 out of 5