Mysterious Skin: Review – Village Voice

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

The Village Voice
The Lost Boys
Skin and boners: Araki eschews pedophilia chic to shatter myths of youthful innocence
Dennis Lim

In Todd Solondz’s current Palindromes, the heroine claims to believe in the innocence of an accused child molester because, as she literal-mindedly puts it, “pedophiles love children.” Mysterious Skin, the new film by Gregg Araki, a fellow indie flamethrower and the designated bad boy of New Queer Cinema’s ’90s big bang, imagines a situation in which the opposite could conceivably be true: Is it possible for a child to “love” a pedophile? Not by any reasonable definition of love. But in daring to contemplate the unthinkable, Mysterious Skin proves that it’s possible to talk about pedophilia— indeed, to condemn it—without resorting to the histrionics of Fox News amber alerts, and furthermore to acknowledge children as sexual beings without echoing the rhetoric of NAMBLA literature. With remarkable directness and composure, it shatters the myth of childhood innocence and the deathless taboo of prepubescent sexuality.

Pedophilia has become the favorite party trick of the American indie— movies from Happiness to L.I.E. to The Woodsman are on some level predicated on a discomfiting, almost stunt-like empathy for the ostensible monster. But instead of humanizing the perpetrator, Araki humanizes the victims—or more precisely, complicates them. In so doing, he subtly erodes the monolithic, panic-based notion of pedophilia. His interest lies in the subjective experience of the abused—the radically dissimilar ways in which trauma can be transmitted and remembered.

Based on a 1995 novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin crosscuts between two boys in ’80s small-town Kansas, essentially strangers but united by a defining moment only one of them recalls. At age eight, Brian blacks out after a baseball game, and those five hours of unconsciousness increasingly haunt him as he grows into a gawky teen plagued by nosebleeds and nightmares about alien abductions. In stark contrast, Neil, the star of that same Little League team, has a sexual curiosity well beyond his years. His baseball coach (Bill Sage), a bronzed, mustached specimen, exerts the same woozy spell on him as his mom’s Playgirls, and the older man, sensing Neil’s inchoate attraction, does not hesitate to take advantage—a courtship over Atari and soda pop climaxes in a queasy seduction by cereal variety pack.

Long before Brian (played as a teen by Brady Corbet), the viewer understands that the lost time he attributes to a visiting UFO was a close encounter of an altogether different kind. Mysterious Skin keeps the boys suspended in divergent orbits, pulled along by their respective dysfunctions. The apparently straight Brian is something of an asexual puppy—as becomes painfully clear when he fends off the advances of a local paranormal enthusiast (a lonely kook played by the excellent Mary Lynn Rajskub). Meanwhile, the aggressively carnal Neil (Joseph GordonLevitt) takes up hustling—first in the desolate parks of his hick town, and then on the somewhat meaner streets of AIDS-scarred New York, all the while pursuing (and often enjoying) sex with considerably older men. His psychological profile is not exactly novel, but given the stunted societal discourse surrounding kids and sex, it still comes as a shock to realize that for Neil, the man who once abused him remains the first love he can’t get over.

For a movie premised on sexual trauma, Mysterious Skin is often disconcertingly sexy—and its eroticism has a surprisingly bracing effect. The film maintains its ethical stance without lapsing into moral judgment; there are no irrational blanket disavowals of sex. This may be because Araki, a true connoisseur of fleshly beauty whose camera seems to exist in a state of permanent arousal, is congenitally incapable of making an unsexy film. (The tricky early scenes with the well-underage performers make clever use of framing, montage, and voice-over provided by their older counterparts.) Few directors objectify their actors as unabashedly, and Araki delights here in reinventing a very game Gordon-Levitt, the former 3rd Rock From the Sun moppet, as a strutting dicktease (from a certain angle, he even brings to mind the director’s onetime muse James Duval). And for perhaps the first time in an Araki movie, the gaze squarely implicates the viewer, our rapt voyeurism contributing to Neil’s circumscribed identity as a sexual plaything.

Mysterious Skin is at times slack and schematic: The narrative relies on convenient oppositions and symmetries to retain its double-helix form. The supporting characters are written in shorthand: distracted or doting mothers and second bananas who may as well have “sidekick” tattooed on their foreheads. And Heim’s scenario, a semi-knowing composite of mid-’90s daytime talk show topics, transfers a little unsteadily to a time when recovered-memory therapy is more closely associated with falsememory syndrome. But as a filmmaker, Araki, always brash, has rarely been so confident, creating a shimmering mood that allows for multiple shifts in perspective and register. Jaggedly dreamy, tucked into an ambient cocoon of a score (by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie), Mysterious Skin suggests a reverie with multiple awakenings. Fittingly, the ending, which crescendos to a dizzying moment of mutual reckoning, offers catharsis but not escape.

Mysterious Skin: Review – The New York Times

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

The New York Times
Mysterious Skin: Seeking Adult Answers in Two Scarred Boyhoods

Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” tells the parallel stories of two boys growing up in a small town in Kansas in the 1980’s and early 90’s. One, Brian Lackey (played first by George Webster and then in his late teenage years by Brady Corbet), believes that the nightmares and nosebleeds that afflict him throughout adolescence are results of an alien abduction that occurred in the summer of 1981, when he was a shy, frail 8-year-old. That same summer, Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison, and later, Joseph GordonLevitt) was molested by his Little League coach (Bill Sage).

From the beginning, we suspect a connection between the boys’ experiences, and part of the film’s narrative momentum comes from their rediscovery of each other after 10 years. In that time, Brian, nerdy and socially awkward, has become obsessed with uncovering the truth, while Neil, in flight from their hometown and his own past, has become a gay prostitute, first at the local playground and then in New York.

Its subject matter may be grim – Mr. Araki addresses Neil’s early and later sexual experiences with unflinching candor – but “Mysterious Skin” is infused with remarkable tenderness and beauty. These are not words you usually associate with this director, whose previous films – including “The Living End,” “The Doom Generation” and one whose title I cannot quote here often valued shock over feeling and provocation over compassion. What those movies did have, sometimes to a fault, was a fearless, reckless honesty that Mr. Araki has not lost, even as he has acquired a deeper sense of story, character and emotion. “Mysterious Skin” is the work of a onetime bad boy who has grown up without losing his ardent sympathy for the wildness of youth. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Any film that deals with the sexual abuse of children risks being misunderstood, especially when it appears to depict that abuse on screen. It is clear that “Mysterious Skin” was written, shot and edited to protect the child actors from saying or doing anything inappropriate, but the audience nonetheless feels the full effect of Neil’s violation. Even more uncomfortably, since we see it from his point of view, we are privy to his complicated emotional response to the coach (whose name is never given), who is at once the predator who stole Neil’s innocence, the father he never had and the great love of his life.

The awfulness of these contradictions follows Neil as he grows up into a cold, beautiful hustler. His clients are older men (the first, a traveling snack-food salesman, has the word Daddy hanging from his rear-view mirror), and his transactions with them are both reminders of Coach and efforts to take belated revenge on him.

“Where most people have a heart,” says his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), “Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole.” Neil is affectless, remote and casually self-destructive, but charismatic and cool enough to keep Wendy and another friend, Eric (Jeff Licon), on his side, along with his doting, dissolute mother (Elisabeth Shue).

Mr. Gordon-Levitt – whom you may, if you look hard enough, recognize as the boy alien from the sitcom “Third Rock From the Sun” – conveys the dimensions of Neil’s damaged personality with ferocious understatement. A lesser actor – and a less confident filmmaker – might have made him into a psychological case study, but the power of the character comes not from his status as a victim but from his resilient individuality.

Mr. Heim’s lyrical, tough novel, also titled “Mysterious Skin,” lifts what could have been a conventional narrative of trauma and recovery (with equally conventional elements of the coming-out, coming-of-age story) into a vivid tale about the strangeness and awfulness of life.

Mr. Araki and his brilliant cast (which also includes Mary Lynn Rajskub as a self-avowed alien abductee who befriends Brian) lift it even further, into a gorgeous, heartbreaking and utterly convincing work of art. Its characters stay with you, and by concentrating on the lives of two very different young men, it seems effortlessly to illuminate a period and a milieu. To say that it is about child abuse is accurate, but incomplete. It is about the Midwest, about friendship, about the connections and disconnections between love and sex, and about a great deal more, all of it handled with clarity, simplicity and rare generosity of spirit.

The rich colors, perfectly chosen music and brief, precisely shaped scenes reminded me a little of Pedro Almodóvar’s recent films. (There is also an obvious thematic resonance between “Mysterious Skin” and “Bad Education,” Mr. Almodóvar’s latest picture, which was also about pedophilia and its consequences.) Mr. Araki, come to think of it, may turn out to be the American Almodóvar, an unruly provocateur in his youth who has, in his maturity, improbably discovered the beauty and dignity of classic melodrama.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Mysterious Skin: Review – New York Post

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

New York Post- Online Edition
“No Place Like This Home”
Lou Lumenick

GREGG Araki, a bad-boy founder of New Queer Cinema back in the ’90s, makes a terrific return to form with “Mysterious Skin,” his most mature, hauntingly poetic and disturbing film to date.

Working for the first time from someone else’s story (a novel by Scott Heim), Araki burrows deeply into the psyches of two 20-ish men whose lives were touched in very different ways by close encounters with a pedophile baseball coach (Bill Sage) a decade earlier.

Neil — brilliantly played by a newly buff Joseph Gordon Levitt, who will henceforth no longer be referred to as the kid from TV’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” — is a reckless gay hustler in his hometown of Hutchinson, Kan., with “a hole where his heart should be,” according to his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg).

Former teammate Brian (the excellent Brady Corbett) long ago left Hutchinson, but is still haunted by blackouts, nosebleeds and his inability to recall a nine-hour stretch after a game.

Brian theorizes — hopes? — he might have been abducted by aliens, but the apparently asexual Brian pushes away the advances of a handicapped fellow UFO fancier (Mary Lynn Rajskub) even as she pushes him back to Hutchinson to face his demons.

By this point, Neil has taken his roughtrade business to New York, where he has some harrowing encounters with older men (the setting is the early 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic), including a brutal bathtub rape in Brighton Beach that’s almost impossible to watch.

When a shaken Neil comes home to Kansas for Christmas, he takes Brian to the coach’s old home, where he shares memories in a sequence that’s as poignant as it is horrifying.

“Mysterious Skin” is not for the squeamish, but it is a beautifully crafted and thoughtful film that genuinely provokes.

Mysterious Skin: Review – Newsday

Posted on 16. Jul, 2010 by in Mysterious Skin: Press, Press

John Anderson

**** (U). Gregg Araki, erstwhile enfant terrible, channels his considerable talents into a heartbreaking story of lost innocence and epiphanies. Haunting. And, oddly enough, joyous. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet. Screenplay by Gregg Araki, based on the novel by Scott Heim. Directed by Gregg Araki. 1:39 (sex, adult content, violence). At Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., Manhattan.

Once described as “eager to offend,” Gregg Araki has made some very good and insistently abrasive movies that were occasionally more angry than organic: “Doom Generation,” “Nowhere” and “Totally — Up” were examples of a director wanting to rattle, rather than seduce, his audience. Some filmmakers have been said to have their fingers on the pulse of the public. Araki was always checking its spleen.

But with “Mysterious Skin” – the first film in which Araki has gone elsewhere for his source material (the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim) – the anger hasn’t been suppressed, simply made more profitable. In “Mysterious Skin,” the hardest of facts are presented the way a traumatized war-crimes victim might relate his or her history – sometimes without passion, sometimes with a kind of intoxication. Araki has put a protective, shimmering patina on a story of abuse and emotional dissonance and the result is an otherworldly, painfully honest movie.

The performances are dead-on. The young Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Neil McCormick, a character right out of the Araki film-family album: Cynical, damaged, unfeeling but emotionally delicate, he begins his hustler career as if there were no other way. Perhaps, Araki says, there isn’t: Neil’s seduction by his Little League coach (a wonderful Bill Sage) is horrifyingly logical: Coach makes the little boy, with no father and a slatternly mother (Elisabeth Shue), feel good about himself. Sex is a small price with a long payout.

Across town is Brian Lackey, who thinks that as a kid he was abducted by aliens. As Brian, Brady Corbet has a more understated role to play than Gordon-Levitt’s, but he balances the film out in an extraordinarily deft fashion. Neil and Brady’s inevitable intersection makes for one of the more shattering, resonant sequences in any film of recent memory.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.