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Mysterious Skin (2004)
- Top Ten NC-17 Flicks (#10)
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. 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 signs of being homosexual at an early age -- he was fascinated with male models depicted in his mother's Playgirl magazines.
Those are the first words spoken in Mysterious Skin, and they come from Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet), a distressed 18 year-old, born and raised in a small Kansas community. The last thing he remembers about that night is rainfall interrupting his softball game, and then waking up at home with a nosebleed, five hours later. Plagued by unexplainable nightmares, blackouts, and more nosebleeds, Brain is convinced aliens abducted him during those mysterious five hours of his youth
Neil McCormik (Joseph Gordon Levitt) lives nearby, but leads a very different lifestyle. While Brian is obsessed with UFOs and secludes himself from the rest of the world, Neil is a teenage hustler, sleeping with any local who offers him a little cash. The two may have more in common than they realize, however, because Neil was also at the softball game that night, and what happened during those mysterious five hours affected them both.
Child molestation themes almost guarantee warfare with the ratings board and theater chains. Kudos to director Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation) for tackling such a taboo subject (especially given the current Michael Jackson trials) and refusing to censor the film after the MPAA slammed it with an NC-17 (it's being released unrated). Araki has the guts to push the envelope even further than recent films involving pedophilia, like L.I.E. and Happiness, while still maintaining a tasteful, artistic adaptation of Scott Heim's moving novel.
Although disturbing, surprisingly, Mysterious Skin isn't gritty or unpleasant. Lush images and smooth, controlled performances contrast the bleak content, and he is careful about his portrayal of the teen hustler. The film contains strong sexuality (what did you expect from a film about pedophilia and hustlers?), but none of it is gratuitous. The story evolves through these sexual encounters, each furthering the plot a little more and becoming increasingly monumental until the final sex scene, which will have even the strongest stomachs in the audience cringing and gasping for breath.
Emotionally, the film is somewhat inconsistent. While Mysterious Skin is often gripping and fascinating, at times, it is difficult to connect with the characters. For instance, when Neil and his best friend (Michelle Trachtenberg) relocate to New York City, their move is awkwardly portrayed. Yes, they want to escape from their small Kansas community, but their decision process could have used more precision and clarity on Araki's part. New York plays an essential role in the story, and their choice to move feels far too abrupt and apathetic to work.
Despite the occasional bump in the road, Mysterious Skin takes some serious artistic risks. It pushes the audience out of their comfort zones without being pushy or manipulative, and journeys into a world that only the bravest of filmmakers dare to explore. This alone makes the film worth seeing.
The DVD features a commentary track and a reading from the Skin novel.
Guess how many marbles I can fit in my mouth.