Directed by Gregg Araki
Gregg Araki burst onto the scene in the early 90s when AIDS was decimating the gay community, reversing its social progress and arming critics with a conveniently vivid consequence of a “decadent” lifestyle. The Living End was Araki’s angry rebuke to that era’s homophobia and defeatism. It had an irresistible premise: two gay men infected with HIV — considered a death sentence at the time — decide to go out with a bang. Mysterious Skin, is a more sober, reflective meditation of that same era.
Much of the story is set in Hutchinson, Kansas, in the heart of the heart of Middle America. There’s Neil and there’s Brian. They’re eight-year-old kids who have nothing in common except for the fact they play little league together. One night, when their game gets rained out, they end up back at coach’s house…
With its unhysterical depiction of pedophilia, Mysterious Skin echoes Todd Solondz’s Happiness, but is told from the boys point of view as their inability to cross the threshold of intimacy leads them to exist in cocoons of self-denial.
Neil is the cool one with attitude. One of the character’s describes him is a planet around which the others revolve, and thankfully actor Joseph Gordon Levitt has enough magnetic pull to make it work. As a little leaguer, Neil lusted after Coach and felt special when singled out to play their games. The scenes between the young Neil and Coach are chillingly effective and have the inevitable velocity of tragedy. He reacts by wearing a mask of wounded, and wounding indifference and ends up turning tricks for closeted Midwestern men in mustaches and Camaros. But prostitution is a false bottom of empowerment, as Neil will soon find out.
Brian, who was the shy kid in glasses, grows up and becomes… the shy kid in glasses — a frightened deer perpetually frozen in life’s glare. Suppressing the encounters, he has reconfigured them in his mind as alien abductions and search es for the truth that’s out there with fellow abductee Avalyn. Their sad quest speaks to the doomed loneliness of those who look to the stars to right the faults in themselves.
But the drive that propels the story is pedophilia. And like Solondz, Araki makes the predator’s point of view uncomfortably plausible. The yearning which pulls these men into dark places seems very much a pathological nostalgia. The undercurrent to their passive predatory instincts is a mourning over the passing of childhood. And each boy’s unlined face is for them, a sad echo of lost youth.
The film works best when keeping the emotional decibel level down. When he ramps things up it can produce cringe-worthy scenes —like the spontaneous snowstorm at a drive-in, with Neil’s childhood friend Wendy, played by Michelle Trachtenberg.
Trachtenberg is a doe, a deer, a female deer but no actress. (Is there not another sloe-eyed starlet out there who can come within shouting distance of a performance?)
Neil’s unraveling is bookended by two encounters with johns, after he has moved to New York. One, his first face-to-face encounter with an AIDS patient, is a wrenchingly sad depiction of a man disfigured by the disease . The other scene, as violent as the first is tender, thrusts itself at the viewer with an insistent anger, and ultimately penetrates Neil’s blank stoicism.
Araki has made a moving, restrained film about desire devoid of tenderness and how a single act can alter forever the trajectory of a human life.
Opens May 6