Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brady Corbett, Billy Drago
Gregg Araki, Scott Heim
I'm sitting here at my computer desperately trying to formulate the words that will accurately, or even semi-adequately, communicate my feelings, thoughts, observations and overall filmgoing experience from today's viewing of Gregg Araki's latest film, "Mysterious Skin."
By now, it is well known that I am a sexual abuse survivor. This subject periodically surfaces in reviews, and my involvement in child abuse prevention activities is well documented. While I doubt I will ever reach a point of considering myself "healed," I am comfortable and happy in my life and consider myself a healthy man.
Yet, here I sit. I find myself numb after watching "Mysterious Skin" nearly five hours ago. I left the theatre and intended to stop for dinner. I couldn't stop. I couldn't think. I couldn't process. I couldn't sort out feelings. I'm fairly certain I drove through at least a couple red lights, but I'm not sure. I came home, tried to nap...I couldn't even sleep. I can't find the words that express the feelings flowing through my body. On the outside, I feel numb. On the inside, I feel everything.
"Mysterious Skin", based upon a novel by Scott Heim, is the story of two very different 8-year-old boys whose lives become forever inter-twined even as their paths divide only to merge again ten years later. When the film opens, both boys are members of the Panthers, a little league baseball team. Brian is the worst player on the team...a quiet, shy kid with few talents and even fewer social skills. Neil, on the other hand, is a handsome young man who quickly becomes the star of the team.
One day, Brian is found in a cellar with his nose bleeding. From this day forward, he will experience nose bleeds, flashbacks, nightmares and other physical symptoms that, over time, he attributes to alien abduction. This belief is reinforced one night when he watches a TV special on alien abduction in which a young woman is interviewed who lives a mere 30 miles away. Brian cannot remember any of his abuse experiences, so instead creates an alternate reality.
On the other side, Neil becomes a "black hole" according to his best friend, Wendy. He begins prostituting himself by his mid-teens, which leads to increasingly risky encounters. Neil has only ever told Wendy about the experiences that Summer, and with a mother too distracted to see the signs he becomes increasingly detached from any sense of normalcy.
Araki has always had a knack for including strange touches in his films, however, "Mysterious Skin" is remarkably faithful to the source material. It does include Araki's trademark polysexuality and somewhat mystical touch in a couple of scenes...however, Araki is stunningly focused here and has essentially created a character study of these two young men and the worlds in which they live.
Brian is played with an understated, remarkable authenticity by Brady Corbett, who also appeared in 2003's powerhouse "Thirteen." Of the characters in the film, I most identified with Corbet's Brian...a young man who processes every life experience by writing and is not only consumed by his childhood experiences, but defined by them. His awkwardness, especially upon meeting the young woman, Avalyn, a somewhat disabled young woman still living with her father who claims multiple alien abductions, is heartbreaking and honest. As Avalyn, Mary Lynn Rajskub will astound those familiar with her work as Chloe on the TV series "24." Rajskub has appeared, mostly in smaller roles, in a wide variety of critically praised films and roles including Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Man on the Moon, Dude Where's My Car and she portrayed Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme in last year's TV version of "Helter Skelter." This performance brings to life a character so deeply absorbed in her abductions that when she attempts to make a pass at Brian it comes as a complete surprise and only then do we begin to realize that perhaps she, as well, has experienced similar childhood abuse (and perhaps still is, while living with her father).
As Neil, Joseph-Gordon Levitt again offers proof of being one of today's best young actors. Still mostly known for his role as Tommy (the young kid) on the TV series 3rd Rock From the Sun, Levitt has appeared in several small, independent films and given an amazing performance each time. Levitt is simply marvelous here in a role that desperately needed a touch of tenderness surrounding his "black hole." Levitt achieves the balance perfectly, and yet offers a powerfully sexual performance (which includes quite a few "body" shots, though never involving genitalia). The closing scenes are among the most transcendent, beautiful and tender scenes I've witnessed in a film on this subject and Levitt pulls them off to perfect (as does Corbet).
As the abusive baseball coach, Bill Sage offers a performance somewhat reminiscent of Kevin Bacon in last year's "The Woodsman." I mean this in the sense that his character is not a "monster", but portrayed much more seductively, playfully...we see very clearly how he seduces the boys, not just "abusing" them. His classic, all-American looks complement this approach beautifully.
In supporting roles, Elisabeth Shue portrays Neil's mother, a woman so wrapped up in her own drama that she can say "I love you" but doesn't have a clue how to really show it. As Wendy, Neil's "soul mate", Michelle Trachtenberg breaks away from much of her kiddie fare and does more with the glance, a gesture than many actresses do with an entire scene.
"Mysterious Skin", for me, is more effective than the aforementioned "Thirteen" because it is a balanced view of what it means to grow up as a sexual abuse survivor. Survivors will notice the difference between Elisabeth Shue's "I love you" as she goes out the door yet again and Coach's "I love you" as he pays more and more and more attention to young Neil. Survivors will cringe at the signs that are so obvious, yet missed...the flashbacks, the words, the gestures, the decisions that are so achingly obvious. yet, much like life, there are moments of tenderness in the film...there are moments of laughter (quite a few actually). Araki paces the film beautifully, allowing for those moments of emotional release through laughter and tenderness and pain and sorrow.
The film includes a haunting musical score by Robin Guthrie, guitarist for the Cocteau Twins. Production design is simple, yet effective and other supporting roles are performed with perfection, including a few you will immediately look at, recognize and go "Wow!"
I'm sitting here. I'm numb. I realize, wholeheartedly, that this film is not perfect...yet it is stunning. I feel myself immersed in it to the point I'm unsure how to climb out of these feelings. "Mysterious Skin" is the finest film of Gregg Araki's career and a reminder of the power of film to change, to heal and to inspire.
I am numb.
Yet, I am so grateful to be alive.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic