Mysterious Skin is a 2004 drama film directed by American filmmaker Gregg Araki, who also wrote the screenplay based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Scott Heim. The film is Araki’s eighth, premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2004, although it was not more widely distributed until 2005.
Mysterious Skin tells the story of two pre-adolescent boys who are sexually abused by their baseball coach, and how it affects their lives in different ways into their young adulthood. One boy becomes a reckless, sexually adventurous male prostitute, while the other retreats into a fantasy of alien abduction.
“Mysterious Skin” begins in the confusion of childhood experiences too big to be processed, and then watches with care and attention as its characters grow in the direction that childhood pointed them. It is not a message picture, doesn’t push its agenda, is about discovery, not accusation. Above all, it shows how young people interpret experiences in the terms they have available to them, so that for Neil, the memory of the coach remains a treasured one, until he digs more deeply into what really happened, and for Brian, the possibility of alien abduction seems so obvious as to be beyond debate. The film begins with their separate myths about what happened to them when they were 8 years old, and then leads them to a moment when their realities join. How that happens, and what is revealed, is astonishing in its truthfulness.
There is accomplished acting in this film, and there needs to be. This is not an easy story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt evokes a kind of detached realism that holds him apart from the sordid details of his life, while Brady Corbet‘s character seems frozen in uncertain childhood, afraid to grow up. Both are lucky to have friends of tact and kindness: Michelle Trachtenberg‘s Wendy knows there is something deeply wounded about Neil, but accepts it and worries about him. And Jeffrey Licon, as Eric, becomes Brian’s closest friend without ever seeming to require a sexual component; he watches, he is curious about human nature, he cares.
“Mysterious Skin” is a complex and challenging emotional experience. It’s not simplistic. It hates child abuse, but it doesn’t stop with hate; it follows the lives of its characters as they grow through the aftermath. The movie clearly believes Neil was born gay; his encounter with the coach didn’t “make” him gay but was a powerful influence that aimed his sexuality in a dangerous direction. Brian, on the other hand, was unable to process what happened to him, has internalized great doubts and terrors, and may grow up neither gay nor straight, but forever peering out of those great big glasses at a world he will never quite bring into focus.
Brian’s voice over lets us know why this is such an important memory:
All I knew was that it was somehow linked to the other time, the night I woke up in the cellar. And I also knew that, no matter how long it took, I had to find out what had happened to me. I had to find an answer to the mystery.
Mysterious Skin is the latest film by Gregg Araki, an American independent filmmaker often identified with radical gay cinema. Araki came to prominence with three movies that were considered landmarks in “New Queer Cinema,” a term coined by the media in the early 1990s for low-budget, gay-themed movies. The director professes an interest rather in “polymorphous sexuality.”
Born in 1972 in Kansas, 8-year-old Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison as a boy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an adolescent) and Brian Lackey (George Webster and Brady Corbet) are sexually abused by their baseball coach (Bill Sage). Both boys are targets for abuse due to their dysfunctional families: Neil’s single mother (Elizabeth Shue) is neglectful and preoccupied with a string of boyfriends, while Brian’s parents are on the verge of divorce.
Neil showed homosexual proclivities at an early age—he was fascinated with male models depicted in his mother’s Playgirl magazines. He interprets the coach’s abuse as an initiation into sexuality and becomes sexually compulsive, being particularly attracted to middle-aged men. Eventually Neil leaves home, drifts into petty crime, and becomes a prostitute in New York City. His friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), who harbors an unrequited crush, describes Neil as having not a heart, but “a bottomless black hole.”
Brian reacts to the abuse by developing psychogenic amnesia and forgetting the events. He remembers waiting for his parents to drive him home from a baseball game, followed by a gap of several hours after which he regained consciousness, bloodied and hiding under the crawl space of his home. For many years Brian suffers from chronic nose bleeds and bed-wetting. In his teen years, Brian becomes nerdy and withdrawn, perceived by others as nearly asexual. He has unsettling recurring dreams about being touched by a strange, bluish hand. These odd dreams lead Brian to suspect that he and another boy may have been abducted by aliens. At the age of 18, Brian meets a young woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who also believes she was abducted by aliens. They begin to form a fragile friendship; though, when she takes a romantic interest in Brian and touches him sexually, he reacts with intense panic and refuses to speak to her again.
While trying to untangle his confused memories, Brian sees a photo of his childhood baseball team, recognizing a young Neil as the boy from his bizarre dreams. Taking the initiative to meet his former teammate, Brian instead, in Neil’s absence, comes to befriend Neil’s friend, Eric (Jeff Licon), and through him learns about their common acquantance. After being beaten and raped by a trick, Neil leaves New York City and returns home. Eventually, the two young men meet for the first time in over a decade. After breaking into the home that was previously rented by the baseball coach, Neil explains how the coach groomed both boys to make the abuse seem normal and acceptable, and how a bluish porch light shining through the bedroom window gave the abusive incidents an eerie atmosphere. Brian breaks down and collapses into Neil’s arms.
The film received generally positive critical acclaim, with an 84% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert] described the film as “at once the most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about child abuse”.
The film was the subject of some controversy in Australia, where the Australian Family Association requested a review of its classification, seeking to have the film outlawed due to its depiction of pedophilia. They suggested that the film could be used by pedophiles for sexual gratification or to help them groom children for sexual abuse.
The six-member Classification Review Board voted four-to-two in favour of maintaining an R18+ rating. The controversy is referenced in a review excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald on the Region 4 DVD that reads: “How anyone could have wanted it banned is beyond me”; film critic Margaret Pomeranz expressed that the film does more for the case against pedophilia, stating: “People who do indulge in crimes like that, if they saw this film they would understand the damage that they do.
- 2004 Bergen International Film Festival – Jury Award
- 2006 Polished Apple Awards – Best Movie
- 2006 Icelandic Queer Film Festival – Best Fictional Work
I watched the movie and it not something for tender haerts and it Tragedies such as child abuse are real tragedies. But it is necessary to explain the role the present state of society plays in making them possible. child abuse has become a cliché. Despite massive attention paid to the problem by the media.