May 11, 2014

[Movies] Mysterious Skin (2004)

My experience with writer-directer Gregg Araki has been rather limited, but he has a certain eccentric style that is pretty distinct. A lot of his movies tend to feature a lot of recreational drug use, sexual situations and of course LGBT characters - many of them rather fluid in terms of their sexuality. Just look at one his more recent works, Kaboom, and you might get a better idea of what I'm talking about.

But for one reason or another I had glossed over Mysterious Skin in my LGBT movie queue for quite some time now. As much as it is an Araki film, it's also based on a book, which certainly gives it a bit more story - at least in theory. If anything, I've always found that Araki's weakness has been his rather outlandish way of plotting and having so much happening at once. So perhaps the effort of adapting someone else's story might give him better limits.

In truth, I rather enjoyed this movie, although I can't necessarily say that I loved it. It still felt distinctly Araki in treatment, which is both a good and a bad thing. But there's also a lot of significance and meaning to be found here once you get past the initial layers of fluff.

Synopsis: Mysterious Skin is a 2004 LGBT drama movie written and directed by Gregg Araki. It was adapted from the 1996 Scott Heim novel of the same name and has won a few awards on the independent film festival circuit.

The are two characters who primarily shape this story. First there's Brian (initially George Webster, later Brady Corbert), who at 8 years old starts to experience lost time and surprise black outs. He also has chronic nose bleeds and tends to wet the bed at night, but no one knows why all this had happened. For one reason or another, this leads him to believe that he was probably abducted by aliens. On the other side, there's Neil (initially Chase Ellison, later Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He realized that he was homosexual at a rather young age and actually is taken advantage of by his little league baseball coach (Bill Sage) at a very young age. This leads him to become rather sexually active at a young age and he goes on to become a male prostitute.

For a large part of the movie we follow Neil around on his exploits as he engages with various clients in his small town with dreams of going to New York. His best friend is Wendy (initially Riley McGuire, later Michelle Trachtenberg), who actually has a bit of a crush on Neil but understands that he'll never feel the same way about her.Brian on the other hand grows up to be quite the introvert and later on tries to connect with a woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who also believes that she was abducted by aliens. Thus he tries to get more information from her and later remembers a young boy being somehow involved in his abduction - that boy later revealed to be the young Neil.

Elephant in the room - there's no getting around the fact that child abuse is sort of front and center in this particular story. Neil is sexually abused at the age of 8 and those scenes may be a little uncomfortable to watch for anyone. It's interesting to note that the movie was filmed in a clever manner that isolated the child actors and kept them in the dark about the abuse aspect of their character roles. And this aspect to things is hardly a tasteless depiction of the whole thing. If anything, the whole movie acts as sort of a demonstration (or perhaps an analysis?) of the effects of child abuse long into adulthood. Neil's character has a particularly shady life all because of that first instance of exploitation.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty brilliant in this movie and he's a character that you feel for even if you don't necessarily approve of his life choices. In the larger scheme of things, it's clear to us as viewers why his life has turned out the way it did starting with the abuse and including his somewhat distant mother. But this movie wouldn't have been the same had Levitt not been involved to share his unique brand of emotional intensity to the production.

When you look at the whole production, Araki's often quirky style seemed a bit muted here, but in a good way. When he's given source material to adhere too, his style actually turns into something that is amazingly complex and rather involving. This is not to say his other movies aren't complex - if anything they tend to go a little overboard right into complicated and confusing. So this was definitely one of his better movies, at least in my opinion.

The rest of the cast was pretty good, but nothing spectacular. That may be because of the way they were written or perhaps everyone just paled in comparison to Levitt. To be fair, they may not have had the chance to really shine given how much screen time the character of Neil gets throughout the movie. There's no doubt who the primary protagonist is despite the counter point of Brian's story. If anything, I think that side of things could have been developed a wee bit more.

This is a rather short review, but there's not much else to say beyond this: it's an intelligent, well-performed movie that has a strong message to deliver. And it's totally worth seeing.

Thus Mysterious Skin is finally off my to-watch list and I'm made all the better because of it. Thus the movie gets a good 5 surprisingly divers clients that Neil hooks up with out of a possible 5.

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