"Mysterious Skin", directed by Gregg Araki, based on a book by Scott Heim, is a very powerful, well-made film with two very good central performances. However, it is a film not everyone will like or be able to sit through.
Brian (Brady Corbet), a bookish young man who has just started to go to Hutchison Community College, is convinced that he was abducted by Aliens one night eleven years ago. On that night, five hours disappeared from his life after his little league game and he woke up in the cellar of his house with a bleeding nose. Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is very aware, very early, that he is gay and at fifteen becomes a hustler, meeting johns in a local city park in Hutchison. When he turns nineteen, he travels to New York to stay with his best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) and starts to turn tricks there. Just as Neil leaves, Brian realizes that they may have a connection, a connection to the night where he lost five hours of his life.
"Mysterious Skin", adapted from the book and directed by Araki, deals with some very adult issues. If you do the math, you'll realize that the important night that effected both of their lives happened when they were eight years old and, without revealing too much of the story, the events were of a sexual nature. Throughout Neil's life, sex is a major factor; sex is pretty much what he is. Because of these story elements, there are sexual encounters presented in the film. But Araki presents these in such a way that they are dramatic points in the story. They are clearly not meant to titillate, they are about as unarousing as watching a married couple drink coffee and read separate sections of the newspaper, but meant to illustrate points in a dramatic story, as a way to inform. During the sexual encounters, the point of view switches, almost exclusively to that of Neil or Brian. We only see the other participant when they might be seen by Neil or Brian, to see what is happening to them. The sexual acts are not pornographic, but suggestive enough that you will get the whole picture, from watching the images presented. This extremely effective method of presenting these sexual acts allows us to see how they change the two young men throughout their life.
Joseph Gordon - Levitt (TV's "Third Rock from the Sun") plays Neil and here is no way we could have ever guessed that he was capable of creating such a believable, indelible character. There is quite a bit of voiceover, particularly in the beginning scenes, when the two boys are eight, as each is relating the events of that summer. As we listen to Neil, there is emptiness in his voice, a harshness which seems real. As we learn more about Neil and watch him interact with others, this becomes all the more resonant. He is this person. Watching him, we completely "get" who he is, what he is, how he became that. His interactions with his mother (Elisabeth Shue) are also very believable. They are more like friends, showing us the absence of a strong paternal figure in his life. She is more interested in living her own life, having fun, meeting new boyfriends, too busy to be that concerned about her son, needing him when she is feeling down. She doesn't want him to be upset with her. And he loves her for her camaraderie. Because there is a lack of parental involvement, he runs around, finding johns, hanging out with friends, coming in at all hours. It is a powerful performance, utterly believable.
Neil's relationship with Wendy is also mesmerizing. Wendy meets Neil at an early age and they stick together throughout their lives, becoming his best friend, confidant and critic. She loves him, but recognizes his faults, and tries to protect others from becoming hurt. Michelle Trachtenberg does a great job of making this character come to life.
Brady Corbert is equally memorable as Brian. The flip side of Neil, Brian is quiet, introspective, possessed with finding out what happened on that night. This one night has essentially shaped his entire life. He doesn't seem to have many friends, because he is confused. He lives with his mother (Lisa Long), a slightly more modern suburbanite. She is the sole bread winner in the family after her husband (Chris Mulkey) leaves, but also willing to say things like "Let's hold off on talking about that until we have a piece of Peanut Butter Peach Pie that I made." As he travels closer to understanding, he suspects that he was abducted by aliens and finds a kindred spirit in Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, TV's "24"), the subject of a television show about alien abduction. What all of these elements do is paint a convincing, accurate picture of a confused teenager. As he reaches the conclusion about those missing five hours, we get a sense that he may have suspected the truth all along, he simply needed confirmation. The final scene, in which he learns the truth, is extremely powerful and convincing.
The performances are both great and can be excused of a couple of overly theatrical moments; both characters have at least one instance where they suddenly burst out shouting.
Araki has fashioned such a believable world, an environment in which all of these events could, and probably do happen. It is a powerful, moving, very effective film with some sequences that are very sexually suggestive.
"Mysterious Skin" is a film that will stay with me for a long time.