In MYSTERIOUS SKIN, an unlikely director takes on an even more unlikely lead actor and crafts a deeply felt coming-of-age tale that pulsates with the scalding beauty of tragedy. The director, Gregg Araki, whose over-the-top gay melodramas have been criticized as largely empty provocations, proves himself here to have great sensitivity. Yet it is the lead actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, best known for his work on the alien sitcom THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, whose unforgettable, nuanced performance makes the film.
Based on the novel by Scott Heim, the story follows two teenage boys living in small-town Kansas: Brian (Brady Corbet), a clunky and awkward fellow with no discernable social life; and Neil (Gordon-Levitt), a rebellious gay youth whose fragile beauty and cruel indifference make him a successful hustler to the area's older men. Having suffered from blackouts as a child, Brian believes that these voids were actually alien abductions, and goes on a quest to confirm this. As his memories become increasingly vivid, Brian convinces himself that Neil, the star player on his childhood Little League team and a regular presence in his dreams, knows the truth. Neil does, in fact, know exactly what happened: the boys were sexually abused by their Little League coach. While Brian has suppressed the incident, Neil has held it deep within him like a treasure, considering it to have been a loving relationship of respect and tenderness, the absence of which has left him emotionally empty. The two strands of narrative are braided together elegantly, slowly leading up to a devastating final scene. Araki unifies the stories through an elegiac, celestial tone that manages to avoid preachiness via doses of appropriate humor. MYSTERIOUS SKIN is so profoundly alive with sadness and beauty that it nearly burns.