I left work a little early the other day and caught a matinee of a movie I had wanted to see. Little did I know the power of this small film, or that it would have one of the best performances I have seen in a long while.
The movie is Gregg Araki’s latest, Mysterious Skin. It’s for me by far his best work to date, and contains some great performances and beautiful film-making. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Scott Heim. Now, I’ve had this novel on my bookshelves for nigh on 5 years or so. Every once in a while I will pick it up, read the blurb in back, and then think “I am really not in the mood for this.” I also have a resistance to the “young hustler” genre of gay fiction: anything that seems to telegraph Gritty! Urban! Seedy! when it seems to be more Exploitive! Titillation! And pedophilia is not one of my favorite subjects.
I’m glad I saw the movie. Now I will read the book. Not only are the characters compelling, the movie managed to tell a very delicate story without being sensational, disturbing without intention to shock. If the book is the same, it must pack quite a wallop.
I don’t want to give to much away, as a lot of the power in this film is the sense of loss and being lost, and by default, discovering. The film focuses on two boys. Neil, played by Jospeh Gordon Levitt, and Brian, played by Brady Corbet. Neil walks us through a sexual relationship that he has with his little league coach, and we see him later as the drug-taking hustler he has become. Brian, meanwhile, who was on Neil’s baseball team, is searching for 5 missing hours of his life, that he believes hold a secret to something wonderful. His main theory is alien abduction.
There are some great performances in this film: Elizabeth Shue as Neil’s mother, a heavy-drinker and promiscuous dater; Mary Lynn Rajskub playing a strange uptight farmgirl who believes she has been abducted by aliens (you will never think of alien abduction the same way again); Michelle Trachtenberg as Neil’s best friend and confidante.
The power in the film, though, is its use and look at sex. It functions as a drug, weapon, balm or enterprise to different characters in the film. And it seems at different times in this film seductive, painful, terrifying, soul-wounding. It is powerful to see a nascent, unapologized for sexuality in an eight year old boy, becoming aware of who he is attracted to—that is something I have never seen on film and something I related to, having been an eight year old gay boy starting to recognize those feelings. But it is also scary to see how those feelings, if in contact with an uncaring and truly disturbed adult, can be twisted and changed forever. These are the most graphic sequences of pedophilia I have ever seen or care to see. They are profoundly disturbing, but so necessary to this film. If you wondered how one experience could change someone forever, this film will graphically demonstrate it.
But the thing this film really has going for it is Joseph Gordon Levitt. His Neil is a mass of will, defiance, fear and pain. Watching him in different scenes with the men he picks up I was struck by how present he was in giving us a character who is living so completely on the edge, and, for all his bravado, is unsure of what he is doing. Though, once again, there are some scary, and not at all arousing sex scenes in this film, so be warned. We are kept off balance as much as he is. Most impressively, we can see why Neil would stay interesting to his friends, even though he mostly is defensive and walled-up. From his way of speaking barely moving his mouth, to his belligerent cockiness, he is fascinating.
Brady Corbet is also wonderful as Brian, the other boy searching for his missing time. It's a credit to him that you just want to take care of him, and try to make everything better. It's a sweet performance of a character who has internalized things in a very different way than Neil. I can’t say anymore except to say you should see this film, and this performance.
P.S. I am interested in this trend of brutalizing sex in the movies. It may be just indie films, but it seems to be happening more and more. As moviegoers, we’re kind of having our nose rubbed in it, for lack of a better word. I think with a lesser film-maker and actors, the sex in Mysterious Skin would have been unbearable, and much of it is by its nature already. I’ll have to write about this more, but I am interested in this fascination with showing unromanticized hurtful sex more and more in films. I wonder what that impulse is coming from? We all know it can be dissapointing, uncomfortable, and strange, but it seems that it is more and more in indy and foreign film. Hm.