After the Abuse

'Mysterious Skin' tackles an uncomfortable topic and becomes one of the year's best films

I can't imagine that anyone in America would make a film that showed Hitler as a hero, or Jesus as a villain, or that questioned the general moral supremacy of the United States (and if you watch Michael Moore's movies, one thing that's clear is that, in criticizing specific moral failings of the U.S., he is nonetheless quite the flag-waving, jingoistic rah-rah American, no matter what his flag-waving, jingoistic rah-rah American critics say). I also wouldn't imagine that anyone would make a movie about child molestation in which the victim claimed to enjoy the abuse.

Except that Gregg Araki has just done it, with Mysterious Skin, and he's somehow succeeded in making one of the best movies so far this year. Obviously, with his topic, it's not going to be one of the most commercially successful films of the year, but I think that even those who are initially disgusted by the premise might find something to like in this beautifully shot, perfectly acted film.

Skin stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil, an earthman who, at the age of 9, entered into a sexual relationship with his Little League baseball coach. While Araki makes it clear that this is rape, and that the coach is a manipulative monster, nonetheless little Neil is flattered by the attention. In fact, the first time he sees the man he knows only as "Coach," he's struck dumb by the older man's Playgirl-style beauty.

Bill Sage, in a 1970s mustache, plays Coach, and he gives a perfectly nuanced performance. There's nothing in his acting to indicate how wrong what he's doing is; in fact, he has impeccable confidence in his actions. It's thus easy to see how Neil is sucked in and flattered by the attention.

Coach's amoral outlook doesn't have the best effect on Neil, though, and he becomes something of a monster, albeit a beautiful one. As he grows into a teen, he acquires a cadre of adoring fans who are seduced by his good looks. He also acquires a shadow in the form of another boy named Brian Lackey.

Lackey, who's the same age as Neil, also had an odd experience at the age of 9. Unfortunately, he can't remember it, and begins to think that he may have been abducted by a UFO. In investigating this missing time in his life, he comes to see that it must have some link to Neil.

Brian Lackey is played by Brady Corbet, and he's credible in the role, though his nerd-boy routine is a bit stock. The other performances, though, are brutally effective. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has matured into a potent performer (he grew up on TV's Third Rock From the Sun, which may be something of an inside joke, what with UFO obsessed Brian stalking him throughout the film). Araki knows how to put good looks to use, but Gordon-Levitt goes him one better by epitomizing exactly the kind of person who acquires a following in high school: a visually appealing, highly manipulative individual who can easily mimic affection, but doesn't feel any strong attachment to anyone.

Michelle Trachtenberg also shines as Neil's best friend, Wendy. She's the human counterpart to Neil's black-hole-for-a-soul existence, and Araki is smart enough not to make her into a clingy cardboard cut-out, in spite of her good nature.

She's also beautiful, and beautifully made up in blacks and reds that match the palette of the film. Araki is one of the few directors who can control all the colors in any given shot, and it gives his films an oddly painted quality. In Skin, the hues seem to be borrowed from a Polaroid picture, everything appearing in oversaturated fields of solid colors that fade into deep shadow. The cinematography is not only dazzling; it's also clearly and inventively focuses on storytelling. The visual sequences are so well constructed in terms of both narrative and raw beauty that you could easily follow and enjoy this film with the sound off.

Though you'd miss the painfully naturalistic dialogue that Araki penned. Araki is very careful in showing the harmful effects of sexual abuse while not going the TV-movie route of simplifying things into some kind of conflict between abused angels and predatory devils.

What makes the continuing abuse that Neil suffered so horrifying isn't that it involved a brutal assault, but that it played on his need for adult approval and affection, and that he could only assimilate it by becoming, himself, a tremendously manipulative and yet seemingly benevolent character. In celebrating what happened to him, Neil is made into a much more interesting character than one who is simply a victim.

However, Araki presents that victimized character as well, and their coming together produces a conclusion that should satisfy those who don't appreciate moral ambiguity on matters of extreme moral depravity.

Mysterious Skin is probably the best American movie I've seen this year. Not that there's a lot of competition, what with Tom Cruise's Extremely Heterosexual Summer Film and Annual Adam Sandler Project Number XIV dominating the screens, but still, it's a damn a good film, and I think it deserves, and would be appreciated by, a much wider audience than will actually see it. So if you're sitting around listening to your Interpol records and polishing your white belt for a night of posing, and you decide to stop off first at the cinema, maybe you should invite Mom or Aunt Agnes along, assuming that they wouldn't be impossibly repelled by the theme. I think they'd enjoy it every bit as much as that Melissa Gilbert TV movie they were planning on watching.

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