Mysterious Skin

(Gregg Araki, USA, 2004)


Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin is, after 9 Songs (2004), another film to have survived a move to censor and suppress it within Australia. One must congratulate the classifiers for sticking with the over-eighteen certificate on a film that is certainly provocative, but on every level a serious and considered work.

However, it is also important to not let such controversy artificially inflate the significance and artistic value of any 'rescued' film. Mysterious Skin is an engaging but only partially successful film.

There can be no doubt that it marks a return to form for Araki, an independently-minded filmmaker who rose to prominence in the early 1990s queer cinema movement, peaked with The Doom Generation (1995), and then floundered for a decade with more mainstream, slightly salacious teen-related material.

Actually, Araki has never left the topic of teenage life with its identity confusions and sexual experimentation (and he is set to return to it once more in the announced CrEEEEps!). Mysterious Skin tracks this process back to an even earlier and more impressionable moment in childhood, when two boys, Neil (Chase Ellison) and Brian (George Webster) come under the influence of Coach (Bill Sage).

Most of the film is devoted to the starkly different journeys these boys take in their teenage years. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes a hustler, seemingly willing to put himself into any potentially degrading or dangerous situation. Brian (Brady Corbet) becomes an introvert, obsessed with the thought that he may once have been abducted by aliens – and finding an eager correspondent in the equally nerdy Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub in a richly comic performance).

Where the film comes undone is in its ultra-kitschy treatment of the alien/UFO thread. In a number of David Lynch-inspired teen films of the 1980s and '90s about the American craze over beings from other planets (such as Static, 1985), such satire came wrapped in a tantalising ambiguity: maybe the most absurd fantasy projections were, after all, true. But Araki erases this ambiguous element very early in the piece, leaving him with very little dramatic tension to play on.

It is on the level of its depiction of sexuality that Mysterious Skin, closely adapted from Scott Heim's novel, is most riveting. The film makes an intriguing companion piece to Jonathan Caouette's 'intimate documentary', Tarnation (2003). Both filmmakers describe their work as being about the complex, tortuous process of 'acting out' that follows a situation of childhood abuse.

One commentator in Britain's Sight and Sound magazine has summarised Mysterious Skin as the story of a boy (Neil) who "has had no sexual boundaries since the age of eight, when his baseball coach abused him". This would seem to align it with Tarnation, in which the filmmaker-subject Caouette comes very close to asserting that he is gay only because of his history of abuse.

Araki, however, is more careful on this point. The first, youthful stirring of Neil's gay desire occurs before the first abuse incident. In general, Araki is far less moralistic than many filmmakers when depicting 'outlaw' sexuality. For him, the perversions of acting out tend to be a sign of health (and good humour) rather than sickness. This is clear in the fresh, open way he depicts the youthful triangle of Neil, Eric (Jeff Licon) and Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg).

The film has many striking moments of stylisation in its production design and cinematography. Yet Araki all too often lets himself stumble into a facile kind of camp humour. Wavering uneasily between the Anything Goes brand of postmodernism that first brought Araki attention and a more probing social conscience, Mysterious Skin ends up, like its young heroes, good looking but confused.

MORE Araki: Now Apocalypse

© Adrian Martin August 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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