Directed by Gregg Araki (2004)
Five hours, from the time it was raining after a Little League game until he woke up in the cellar of his home with a bloody nose, are a blank to eight-year old Brian (George Webster). In Gregg Araki's powerful drama, Mysterious Skin, Brian accounts for his missing time by confabulating it with stories of alien abductions and sets out on a path to uncover long suppressed memories. This is not a film about alien abductions, however, but about inappropriate sexual seduction of children and its deleterious effect on their development. While it is often graphic and difficult to watch, it is a sensitive film, held together by authentic and heartfelt performances by Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Neil and Brady Corbet as Brian that allow us to connect with their open wounds.
Based on a 1996 novel of the same name by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin opens as Brian and Neil (Chase Ellison) are on the same baseball team in their hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. Neil is the star athlete on the team, while Brian is not as good, a fact repeatedly pointed out to him by his father (Chris Mulkey) who later abandons the family. Neil is the son of a single mom (Elizabeth Shue) who is more attentive to her many boy friends than to Neil. Although only about ten, he feels that he's gay and is flattered when the coach (Bill Sage) takes an interest in him and brings him to his house to introduce him to snacks, video games, and sexual activity.
The film then moves ahead ten years to reveal two boys who have gone in different directions. Neil has become a male hustler who prefers older men and has found a niche in the town park that is available to prostitution. Though he seems to be to searching to recover the special loving feeling that he felt with his baseball coach, this proves elusive and he goes from one unloving john to another (typically depicted as old, fat, ugly, wealthy, or sadistic). His friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) describes Neil to his gay friend Eric (Jeff Licon) as a person with a black hole for a heart. To find more edgy experiences, Neil follows Wendy to New York but all he finds is more of the same and a lot edgier.
Brian, on the other hand, has become a deeply introverted teenager who accounts for his memory loss by assigning it to a UFO-related abduction, though he has none of the other common signs of alien abduction and is without physical evidence to prove it. He watches a television program about alien abductions and decides to meet one of the abductees on the program, a young woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) with whom he visits and shares the dreams he has recorded in his notebook. Brian tells her of a dream he has had about a young boy on his baseball team and she encourages him to find out the boy's identity to shed some light on the missing time incident. When the young woman tries to seduce him, however, he recoils in horror. Eventually, Brian discovers Neil's identity by researching the team history at the library and the final sequence in the coach's empty house when Neil and Brian meet at Christmastime is memorable for its tender beauty.
Mysterious Skin is an honest and compelling film in which there are no good guys and bad guys, just flawed people who act out their deep-seated needs in a harmful sexual way. Although Araki doesn't stand in judgment of his characters or their behavior, the results of their actions are unmistakable. Although we watch Neil engage in self-destructive behavior, the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so revealing that we root for him in spite of reluctantly noticing the open pit into which he is falling. The only false note in the film is the implication that "screen" memories masking the repression of sexual abuse are an explanation of alien abductions. According to David Jacobs (Secret Life, 1992), of the thousands of accounts of UFO-related abductions no screen memories have ever been stripped away to reveal a past history of abuse. This is only a minor flaw, however, in one of the best films of the year.