May 31, 2005

MOVIES: Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2005)

Mysterious Skin isn't always easy to watch -- a movie about the sexual abuse of children shouldn't be easy -- but it's a powerful and heartbreaking movie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is remarkable in one of the leading roles.

The movie tells the parallel stories of two boys, Neil and Brian, growing up in the same Kansas town. Brian (played as a boy by George Webster, later by Brady Corbet) is a nervous, bookish child who suffers from blackouts and nosebleeds that began one summer day when he was eight, an afternoon of which he has no memories. These are five hours of "lost time" for Brian, and he becomes convinced that he was abducted by aliens.

Neil (Chase Ellison as a child; Gordon-Levitt as a teen) remembers his eighth summer perfectly; that was the summer that his baseball coach molested him. Neil becomes a hard young man who keeps his emotions firmly under wraps and supports himself by hustling, first in his home town (where there seems to be a surprisingly large number of clients and surprisingly little gossip) and then in New York.

There is a lot of sex in this movie, which will keep some away, but it is less graphic physically than it is emotionally. The flashback scenes involving the child actors are very carefully written and edited so that the boys never have to say or do anything inappropriate, but we are left with no doubt what's happening.

Brian's ongoing search for the truth about his lost hours lead him inevitably to Neil, and the scene in which Neil explains what really happened on that day is a marvel, both men having extraordinarily complicated reactions to those memories.

The performances are all just right; in addition to Corbet and Gordon-Levitt, there's fine work from Mary Lynn Rajskub as a UFO nut who befriends Brian, Jeff Licon as Neil's best friend, and Elisabeth Shue as Neil's mother.

Mysterious Skin, based on a novel by Scott Heim, recognizes that children have sexual feelings and responses far earlier than we generally acknowledge, and deals with that fact in a non-exploitative way. It's a remarkably good movie, sad and lyrical; above all else, it's brave enough not to reduce the story to just a tale of two-dimensional villains and victims.

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