3 stars (out of 4)
In "Mysterious Skin," Gregg Araki, director of "The Living End" and "The Doom Generation," plunges us into a world of homoerotic ecstasy and danger, wrecked lives and possible redemption.
Araki's often-moving film is based on Scott Heim's lyrical, disturbing novel about two Kansas boys and the long aftermath of their separate seductions by a pedophile baseball coach, and it's striking for the ways Heim and Araki convey a mix of anguish and sexuality. Of all the director's up-front tales of the volatile edges of gay life, this is easily one of the best.
"Skin" carries its two protagonistsBrian Lackey (Brady Corbet of "Thirteen") and Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of "Third Rock from the Sun")from age 8 to 18. During that time, Brianwho has somehow confused his seduction with dreams of abduction by UFOsbecomes a repressed introvert. Neil, by contrast, grows into a magnetic teen hustler with a cocky, what-the-hell attitude, recklessly navigating his way through a twilight zone of sex for pay.
The director is not shy about either simulating gay sex on screen or charting the realities of both his characters' sometimes shattered or sordid lives. Almost like a gay-oriented version of the story Clint Eastwood told in his chilling adaptation of Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River," it's about lives blighted by youthful sexual abuse.
The two boys are presented as total opposites from Little League on: Brian as the "spaz" baseball player and Neil as the effortless team star and coach's pet. They also come from very different home lives: Brian is the product of a conflicted home (Chris Mulkey as absent dad, Lisa Long as smothering mom) and Neil of a one-parent household headed by a promiscuous mother (Elisabeth Shue). Brian has few friends. Neil has many satellites and two close pals: Michelle Trachtenberg (of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") as his best buddy/confidante Wendy and Jeff Licon as his follower, Eric, who helps establish a link between the long-ago teammates.
But their indissoluble link is the fact that both were seduced, at 8, by their amoral coach (Bill Sage). Brian has blotted it from memory but Neil is ensnared in a protracted affair that leads to his career as a male whore.
It's a complex story, but Araki tells it with audacity and a shimmering lucidity. Movies that use pedophilia or pederasty as a themesuch as "L.I.E." or "Mystic River"run the risk of alienating part of the audience. But Araki makes danger and revulsion part of his dramatic method. He builds up the nightmare quality, especially of Neil's encounters. Borrowing imagery from sentimentalized boyhood movies about baseball or Halloween, he's able to effectively twist and transmute them into shivery mockeries of middle-class life.
The images stay hard and gorgeously bright even as "Skin" turns darker and moves onto more dangerous ground. Coach Heider is an engaging monster with a breezy, pseudo-Robert Redford exterior and Araki presents him as a conscienceless, practiced predator.
As Brian, Corbet suggests a more detached and narcotized version of Napoleon Dynamite, without the humor. Gordon-Levitt plays Neil as a brash, Matt Dillon-esque teenage stud. Both of them bring out the human sides of their characters, as do Shue, Mulkey and Long in the parent roles and the ensemble who play Neil's gallery of johns. Araki uses clips from low-budget horror movies, including George Romero's original 1968 "Night of the Living Dead," and "Mysterious Skin's" acting suggests a horror movieas does the progressive violence between Neil and his customers.
Araki, always among the most unabashed and adventurous of the young gay American directors, conveys this shadowy world with both compassion and terror, a strange sort of boyish sentimentality filtering his hard-edged gaze into the abyss.
"Mysterious Skin" is an absorbing story. Even though it takes you to places you may not want to go, the film never loses its human touchthat feel of skin on skin or of the past inescapably invading the present.
firstname.lastname@example.org "Mysterious Skin"
Directed, written, edited and produced by Gregg Araki; based on the novel by Scott Heim; photographed by Steve Gainer; production designed by Devorah cq Herbert; music by Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins); produced by Araki, Mary Jane Skalski, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. A Tartan Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. No MPAA rating: Adult (parents cautioned for sensuality, nudity, drugs, language, violence).
Brian Lackey - Brady Corbet
Neil McCormick - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Wendy Peterson - Michelle Trachtenberg
Eric Preston - Jeff Licon
Coach Heider - Bill Sage
Ellen McCormick - Elisabeth Shue
Avalyn Friesen - Mary Lynn Rajskub cq
Mr. Lackey - Chris Mulkey