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Mysterious Skin

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Brian Lackey tells us that in 1981, when he was 8 years old, “five hours disappeared from my life.” It happened again two years later, on Halloween 1983. He came to believe that he was abducted by aliens on those occasions, hence the missing time and the fragmented memories.

But “Mysterious Skin” has another narrator, too. Neil McCormick is the same age as Brian, played on the same Little League team that summer of 1981. Neil remembers everything, though. He remembers their coach (Bill Sage), a young-looking bachelor with a mustache and an Atari 2600 and a cabinet full of junk food. He remembers the time the game got rained out and Coach invited Brian back to his house to play with him and Neil. He hasn’t seen Brian since then, but now Brian has dreams in which he remembers there being another boy with him on the aliens’ ship. He wants to find this boy, now 18 years old like him, to ask him questions. He wants to know the whole story.

“Mysterious Skin” is such a profoundly unsettling film that I can’t imagine wanting to watch it again — except that it is also so well made, so finely acted and so sharply constructed that I want to see it again almost immediately. It’s the same reaction I had to “Requiem for a Dream”: disturbing in the extreme, yet elegantly so. The strong subject matter is depicted candidly, not gratuitously or glamorously. Some of the characters may wallow a bit in depravity, but they realize the error of it, and the movie doesn’t join them in their enthusiasm for it.

The bulk of the film is set in the fall of 1991 in rural Hutchinson, Kan. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who tells us he was gay before he ever met the coach, works full-time as a hustler in the local parks, loved but left alone by his trashy mother (Elisabeth Shue). The town is so small, and Neil so prolific, that he claims to have had sex with every man in the place. Twice. Yet in a later scene, when a customer produces a condom before the act, Neil is baffled by it. Has he never used one before? Or is he merely surprised that this particular man is insisting on it? By either interpretation, his tough, cynical exterior belies his true naivete.

Brian (Brady Corbet) has grown up a little better, with a missing father but a doting, well-grounded mother (Lisa Long). He seems to be asexual, actually, neither gay nor straight, and is obsessed, with his huge nerdy glasses and his bookish demeanor, with UFOs and alien abductions. He not only believes that’s what happened to him, but he seems to want to believe it. Some part of him suspects that explanation is too fantastic to be true, but the truth, which he gradually realizes, is too horrific to be accepted.

If nothing else, the film is a melancholy reminder of the devastating effects of child abuse, the way it shapes and mis-shapes its victims, the way it changes their futures and limits their options. But if it were only an anti-pedophilia rant, it would have little artistic merit. There are pamphlets at the health clinic that can tell you the facts. “Mysterious Skin” tells you the emotions, and writer/director Gregg Araki (adapting Scott Heim’s novel), paints them with vivid, somber strokes.

Notice Neil’s first experience as a boy-for-hire, at age 15, skinny and lanky and rented for an hour by a middle-aged family man. The pivotal moment is conveyed with a shot of just Neil’s face — upside-down, as he is lying across the bed and the camera is coming at him from the opposite direction. The effect of seeing an inverted face for so long — the shot lasts more than a minute without cutting away — is disconcerting. The face starts to look foreign, alien, and not like a face at all. And behind the face, Neil is changing, too. This is the turning point for him.

Observe Neil and Brian’s one major scene together, when all is revealed. Watch Brian’s face register the range of emotions as the terrifying truth about his childhood is made known to him. Watch Neil’s cynicism break down as he sympathizes with his fellow victim, even though “victim” is not a word he’s ever applied to himself. These young actors, Gordon-Levitt and Corbet, handle the scene with astonishing truth and conviction.

What a sad, compelling movie this is. It’s not as artfully made as the film I compared it to earlier, but its stark tone and gut-wrenching performances render it unforgettable.

A- (1 hr., 39 min.; Not Rated, but here's what happened: It was rated NC-17 for abundant harsh profanity, a lot of graphic sexuality (though only a little bit of nudity), a little violence, and a lot of discussion and implication of child molestation. It probably deserved the rating..)

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