In the early 1980s, two 8 year-old boys are molested by their baseball coach. They react to the trauma in very different ways. Neil, who had been abused by his coach repeatedly, grows up identifying with his abuser, carrying around some secret pride that he was coach’s favorite. At the age of 15 (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he starts working as a prostitute. Brian, on the other hand, a quieter and shyer kid than Neil, grows up having no memory of his abuse and, as a teenager (played by Brady Corbet), has spent years fascinated by stories of alien abductions, convinced that he himself had been abducted. Searching for answers, he tries to track down Neil hoping he can explain the gaps in his memory.
Mysterious Skin is not for everyone. Many will be turned off just by the quick synopsis that I offered in the first paragraph. It deals unflinchingly with subject matter (child abuse, prostitution, and rape) that most of us don’t want to think about in such graphic detail.
Many of us can forgive a mediocre action movie or convenient twists and lazy writing as long as they keep us entertained. For most people, though, if we’re going to sit through a movie with subject matter like this, it had better be GREAT. Which this isn’t. Not everything works, Corbet’s performance as Brian rings true but a subplot involving an alliance with 24‘s Chloe, who plays a reclusive 32 year-old with an alien abduction of her own, is particularly unconvincing.
But director Gregg Araki gets most of the details right. This film is refreshingly, even brutally, honest about the traumatic impact of childhood sexual abuse. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s half of the film is particularly convincing. JGL has made a career of playing tortured young men and he’s at his best here. Neil is charming but unreliable, constantly letting down and pushing away the people that care about him. He seems to have a bit of a death engaging in increasingly risky and unsafe sex. We see a gentler, more compassionate side to him though when he finally reconnects with Brian, leaving us with a glimmer of hope that maybe there’s hope for these two characters after all, quite a feat for a film that is a mostly bleak and punishing experience.