It is rare that i feel “icky” after seeing a movie. The only other time I can remember feeling like this was when I saw Irreversible, which is quite possibly the most disturbing film I have ever seen. Back to Mysterious Skin, you have a film that deals, in a very palpable way, with the sexual abuse of children by a trusted adult. The effects are traced through the eyes of two boys.
A film like this is a difficult one to approach in a review. I went in not quite knowing what to expect, I knew that it had positive buzz surrounding it, but I was completely unprepared for what I was faced with. A film that doesn’t preach or turn into propaganda, rather it examines the effects on these two boys as they grow up. It looks at their ability, or lack thereof, to process their experiences and feelings.
Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desires the attention of his coach, and upon becoming his “favorite,” relishes the contact. The contact between the two lasts for the entire summer, and has a lasting effect on the remainder of his life. Neil becomes a gay prostitute, working the playground of the small Kansas town. We follow him on some of his experiences, humorous and not. At one point he is described, by his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) as “Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole.” A rather fitting description, as Neil’s emotional growth is stunted by the experience, he seems to be aimless, outside of his chosen profession. A shell without a soul.
On the other side is Brian (Brady Corbet) who has blocked the experience (two of them as it turns out) from his memory. These gaps in time, combined with blackouts, nightmares, and nosebleeds, has him convinced that he was abducted by aliens. He keeps a journal of his dreams, and befriends a fellow abductee, Azalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who discusses abduction techniques and attempts a probe of her own. A probe which is unable to processed by the fractured Brian. The discussions lead Brian to search for Neil, barely missing him. Instead he befriends Eric (Jeffrey Licon), a gay teen with a penchant for punk attire and black lipstick. The two become an unlikely pair of friends.
Neil had followed Wendy to New York City, where he continues his “job” before learning of the inherent dangers, and finally suffering a rather brutal attack which sends him back to Kansas. Kansas, where the inevitable crossing of paths with Brian takes place.
There is so much to absorb here. The way these two boys process the experience and how it shapes their futures. Both of them sent in a downward spiral. It is difficult to watch as we watch their coach “at work.” It is creepy how Neil responds to this young attention, desperately searching for a father figure. Brian’s mind chose to block it, and by doing so trapped him a state of perpetual shyness and nervousness around anything.
The performances are fantastic. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in particular, is rather magnetic. His portrayal of Neil is enigmatic. He has this blank face, slurred way of talking, and a matter of fact approach to the jobs, as if he doesn’t really want to, but thinks this is the way to make connections. Brady Corbet also does a fine job, giving us this skittish kid who needs to learn the truth of his missing time, but may not be able to process it.
Bottomline. This is a powerful work dealing with dark subject matter that is delivered compellingly, and unflinchingly. I found myself cringing in disbelief at the events of the movie, I was disturbed at how real the events felt. This is definitely not for everyone, but deserves to be seen.
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