Is it a coincidence that Mysterious Skin, the strongest film of Gregg Araki’s career, is also the first film the director has adapted from another source? From the hyperbolic, pop saturation of its images to its theme of pretty young things wrestling with their place in the world, it’s an Araki film through and through, but the story—adapted from Scott Heim’s 1996 book of the same name—is tightly wound and has a stabilizing effect on Araki’s typically erratic and high-strung visual style, which tends to flail around aimlessly when it has no narrative momentum to hold on to. Pop iconography typically signifies the alienation of Araki’s characters from the world, but in Mysterious Skin it ushers in their salvation. For Araki, then, Mysterious Skin spells progress.
Somewhere in Anytown, USA, a little league coach (Bill Sage) molests two tykes under his watch. As young adults, the victims remember the abuse differently—one with disturbing clarity, the second as an alien abduction—and Araki illustrates how their memories shape their adult lives. The way the director shoots the film’s abuse scenes—using fractured shots consisting, for example, of his young actors making pained, sometimes pleasurable expressions and Sage puckering for the camera or stroking what is clearly a body double’s torso—mirrors the fear, confusion, limited understanding, and subsequent detachment of the story’s victims, an aesthetic rite that repeats itself when an older Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) scores tricks with older men out of a local schoolyard (here a symbol for his stunted youth). Araki doesn’t eroticize molestation; instead, he bravely recognizes the erotic force that often haunts, colors, and charges the adult sexual identities of abuse victims.
What makes Neil so interesting, sad, and authentic as a character is the way his actions feel as if they’ve been set into motion by his difficult past. He consistently puts up a brave front for the world, going as far as to feign ignorance to his good friend’s affections, which makes his request that Eric (Jeffrey Licon) examine his dick for crabs seem devastatingly insensitive. Equally convincing, Brian (Brady Corbet) is a mousy little thing whose considerably more confused but no less self-delusional outlook stems from his own inability to reconcile the past. After watching a television program about alien abductions, he becomes obsessed with a young woman, Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who claims to have been abducted, and his ensuing relationship with her reveals itself as a tortured dance between two people not only fooling themselves but also each other.
Mysterious Skin seems to exist in a memory deprivation tank flooded with hyper-saturated recollections and pop-cultural codes. With great clarity and poignancy, Araki’s aesthetic evokes a sense of colors moving between past and present by osmosis, a visual expression of the way his characters cope with life. The colorful veneer of Neil and Brian’s remembrance of their sexual abuse isn’t an expression of something fondly remembered but a soul-sucking vision of denial. Neil and Biran’s past is a black hole that appears to strip their present-day of purpose and meaning. Even Neil, who is openly gay and grapples with his abuse differently than the straight Brian, doesn’t so much remember his molestation as he does the childhood symbols that colorfully haunt its periphery, from his coach’s Atari games to the cereal that the man pours over their heads. He’s a young man unable to look at the past with anything besides the eyes of a child.
How Neil should use these codes to unlock his past and free himself and the nerdy Brian—whose belief that he was abducted by aliens slowly reveals itself as an emotional cover-up the closer the boys’ adult paths converge—becomes increasingly clear when he visits his fag hag, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), in New York City. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” she says, employing a pop-cultural vernacular that indicates not only her desire for him to play safe in the bedroom but an indication that its time to grow up. It’s in the film’s greatest scene (easily the highlight of Araki’s career) that Mysterious Skin‘s many themes and dueling dialectics converge: Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” challenges Neil to confront his past and the boy’s devastating loneliness is illuminated when a sad trick played by Billy Drago removes his shirt and simply asks the teenager to massage the KS lesions on his back. The aesthetic ecstasy of the scene is matched only by the honesty and rawness of its emotions, which ushers in the womb-like comfort zone of the film’s finale, Araki’s answer to Neil’s heartbreaking and faraway yelp in one scene for the intimacy and warmth of his mother.