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Photograph by Lacey Terrell

Abducted: Brady Corbet and Mary Lynn Rajskub play kids gone round the bend in 'Mysterious Skin.'


Gregg Araki trembles on the verge of too much in 'Mysterious Skin,' his study of child abuse

By Richard von Busack

ANY RUBE can make a movie that comes out against pedophilia. It took director Gregg Araki to make a near classic on the subject: Mysterious Skin, a film that explains the complex, shameful feelings of a victim. The film outlines the way warped love can change the perspective on every sexual adventure that comes after. While recovered memory is a dubious literary device, Araki wields it with skill and sensitivity.

In Hutchinson, Kan., in the 1970s, two boys grow up, never really getting to know one another. One is a bespectacled mama's boy named Brian (Brady Corbet), who is obsessed with the idea that he's been abducted by aliens. Only being stolen and probed could explain a five-hour hole in his memory. The other boy is a dark, snake-hipped feral kid named Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who grows up into the town hustler. ("I fucked every single guy and his ugly uncle in this town. Twice.")

The connection between the two is a mystery that grows as they age. Araki tips us off early to some clues to Brian's experience and how Neil was complicit in it. The molestation was experienced differently by Neil. He had a crush on the baseball coach (Bill Sage, perfect as the '70s-style stud with the Sundance Kid mustache). "A ghost who haunts the movie," Araki writes.

Neil's first encounter with the coach is candy-colored. A shower of pastel-hued breakfast cereal cascades, like manna from heaven, over the boy's head. The celestial music is by Brian Eno collaborator Harold Budd and Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie.

Later in life, Neil continues his rent-boy career in New York, plunging farther into trouble. In the early 1990s, during Christmas in the Midwest, the two are reunited and the full story of their experiences comes out.

Two talented children play the 8-year-old Neil (Chase Ellison) and Brian (George Webster). Getting the kids to pantomime the experience of being molested is a matter of voice-overs and fade-outs. It is extreme but never really explicit. (These scenes have stirred up feverish surmise on the Internet. But I suspect that every 8-year-old boy has a vague idea of what bad things might happen to them if they got into a stranger's car.)

Mysterious Skin, so superior to the similarly titled Mystic River, tells its horror story without making monsters. Cinema is the one place where we can examine our national terror of child abuse. "Most every single thing we done stems from us being abducted," says Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chloe on 24), a crippled, half-crazed alien abductee who Brian befriends for a time.

Being a child whose potential was shattered by abuse—that's one way of explaining failure in our success-drunk culture. There is so much failure, and we need our explanations badly. The ranks of those abused as children are so enormous that a cynical friend once proposed a bumper sticker: "If you weren't molested, you were an ugly kid." Probably you'd get your tires slashed. Sadly, no one would understand the reverse side of the joke: "If you were molested, for God's sake, don't feel ugly."

Mysterious Skin tells one compelling mystery. The elegance of it couldn't have been predicted from Araki's last release in our area, the would-be midnight movie Totally Fucked Up. Give him credit, though; in that film, Araki discovered a hot plush-lipped starlet named Rose McGowan.

He may have made another star here. Gordon-Levitt, of 3rd Rock From the Sun, is memorable as the watchful, anarchic hellion Neil. It's the best portrait of a hustler in years. Despite a sad-comic turn with the avuncular Richard Riehle as Neil's first trick, Gordon-Levitt's most phenomenal duet is with a tottering, wet-eyed pickup (long-time villain Billy Drago). The moment, heavy with horror-film significance, focuses on a poster above the trick's bed, a huge blowup of Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring. The frame is trimmed to her face. Without the negative space around the subject of the famous painting, what we see isn't the girl's surprise but a look of paralytic shock. This episode is about AIDS, and I would trade these five minutes for all of Angels in America.

There's one clinker line, issued from a hard-working but miscast Michelle Trachtenberg as Neil's best friend, Wendy. She judges, "Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole." With a performance like Gordon-Levitt's, you didn't need the words.

The final revelation of Brian's abuse comes from a weary and beaten Neil. The moment is scored with the sounds of an offscreen Christmas carol. I wouldn't have believed it, but the moment works. That is one definition of greatness: a movie trembling on the verge of "too much." Mysterious Skin crosses boundaries, but it never crosses that line.

Mysterious Skin (R; 99 min.), directed by Gregg Araki, written by Araki and Scott Heim, photographed by Steve Gainer and starring Joseph Gorden-Levitt and Brady Corbet, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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