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Mysterious Skin

2006-03-30 13:15


Neil and Brian were young boys of the same age when something happened, something that they have dealt with differently Neil - now living a very promiscuous gay lifestyle, and working as a male prostitute - remembers a sexual relationship with his Little League coach, and believes he enjoyed it and was in love. Brian (Brady Corbet) by contrast is completely alienated from sexuality of all sorts. And remembers nothing about his experiences with the coach. Instead he believes that he was abducted by aliens as a child. Brian's search for explanations for what he remembers - blue light, fingers, and fear - leads him gradually towards Neil.

The story centres around Neil, his mother (Elizabeth Shue) and his two close friends, the flamboyantly gay Eric (Jeff Licon) and female buddy Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg). Neil has moved New York with Wendy to escape his home town. When he returns, after being brutally raped by a street client, the two boys finally face what happened to them all those years ago.


This is no made-for-TV drama about innocent victims of child abuse, preyed on by merciless adults, then saved by the kindness of others. Mysterious Skin, like its subject matter, is far more complicated than that.

Many other films take a uniform approach to child abuse, along the lines of "If you were abused as a child, these will be the consequences." The consequences posited vary from film to film.

Mysterious Skin's approach to abuse and its consequences is... mysterious. It acknowledges the contradictions, and the different reactions of individuals in the situations they faced as children, and are still facing as adults. The characters are all very different, and very real. You may feel you know them. There's a chance you do know them in a sense.

The characters are archetypes, not stereotypes, and their development evades cause and effect arguments, making it hard to say which parts of their characters are a result of abuse, and which parts are born of family circumstances, and which parts are simply innate traits.

In a courageous move, Mysterious Skin refuses to portray abuse as necessarily non-consensual. It's clear that, at the time, Neil enjoys being Coach's favourite, and enjoys sex with his Coach, who he later says "really loved him". In fact, Neil falls in love with him long before the coach makes his unscrupulous move. An early scene shows him having his first orgasm watching his loving but irresponsible mother with an older moustachioed boyfriend. Weird, yes, but very human.

Of course, Neil's early experiences do affect him. He's emotionally distant. He's into older men. He's curious about pain and domination - often taking risks. And he doesn't have romantic relationships with his sexual partners.

By contrast, Brian reacts completely differently to abuse at Coach's hands. Though also somewhat emotionally withdrawn, he rejects sex completely, and buries the memories.

If skin means protection, this movie shows how sometimes it can shield you, and at other times be a conduit to pain or pleasure, or both together. Throughout, Mysterious Skin offers light moments to remind you that there's joy in life as well as sadness, and that you can't live without both.

The film constantly touches on how physical sexuality intersects with our emotional lives and how, perhaps, the two are actually inseparable. Why should being touched (anywhere) be traumatic? It shouldn't unless you catch something dangerous. Touch washes off. But we know that its effects remain long after the pleasure or the pain is over.

In portraying the links between touch, tenderness and torture, Araki's direction takes you under each character's skin. He does this using sensual mechanisms like intimate shots of their bodies, beautiful and absorbent and vulnerable. This allows you an understanding of their experiences in a way that is more a kind of kinship than something analytical. Strong physical performances by all the actors communicate more than the words of dialogue. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in particular conveys so much without seeming to move.

There are no answers in this film. But so-called "answers", that analyse and define truth, often limit it. Araki avoids conclusions or generalisations. Instead, he evokes the essence of many abused people's stories by telling just a few in detail.

It's a pity that in the closing moments the film seems to lose faith in its subtle approach. In the final sequence, it lapses into a twee metaphor in which it seems the two boys, sitting together on a couch sharing their stories, are being taken into a space ship. A voiceover talks about dealing with the past and the future and moving on and that sort of stuff. Though the comments made are valid, Neil seems to be explaining, rather than showing, his feelings.

But overall it's a shocking film that doesn't employ shock tactics. This movie is about trauma but, like life, has moments of poignant lightness. Some may find it unsatisfying because it refuses to take vengeance on the baddies, dehumanise the abusers or glorify victimhood. So you won't forget it quickly, or stop thinking about what it all means. For those who enjoy drawing their own conclusions about life, it's highly recommended.

- Jean Barker

A complex and courageous exploration of child abuse that you won't easily forget.

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