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Mysterious Skin

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Mysterious Skin is an impressively good, tragic and moving film. Two boys in small-town America, Neil and Brian, are haunted by child-abuse and UFOs respectively. Neil grows up to become a hustler and work in New York while Brian becomes an introverted Bill Gates lookalike trying to figure out what happened in those hours of his childhood he can’t remember. It takes them many years to understand their respective situations.

I was quite impressed by the film. While you see the drama and revelations unfold, all the details just seem to be perfect. The way their families work – Neil’s mum being young, open minded, laid back and in constant search of new boyfriends, while Brian’s dad is dismissive, negligent and then gone and his mum is the old-fashioned hard working and utterly caring type.

Also the way their friendships are presented – particularly that between and Neil and Wendy, his best friend and only confidant in the childhood abuse: She really cares for him and keeps telling him to not take too many risks and perhaps look for a safer ‘line of work’. Which he tends to shrug off as he doesn’t really perceive the abuse by his coach at the age of eight as a problem but as something that made him feel special. And a decade later he still considers selling himself and his good looks for sex the most natural thing.

In fact, the only time Neil gets really freaked out during work is when some guy with a scary looking skin problem, asks him to caress his back rather than having sex. Wendy probably puts it the best way by saying:

Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole.

The next paragraph may be considered a spoiler, so you may want to skip that and jump down past it.

Wendy and Neil

It’s not a complete surprise I guess, but it turns out that Brian’s alleged abductions by aliens in his childhood and the ‘lost hours’ which haunt him are related to the child-abusing baseball coach as well. As he subconsciously remembers Neil’s face, he tracks him down and when they finally meet Neil takes him to the coach’s house and tells Brian all the things that happened there. Those are very painful moments. And seeing Brian suffer just from hearing the story, his story, their story, in which Neil always refers to the coach and him as ‘we’, makes him realise the effect all of this had on him as well, ending the film with the insight that he…

[…] wished there was some way for us to go back and undo the past, but there wasn’t. There was nothing we could do.

And all that while Sigur Rós (third track of ( )) played. So depressing. So wonderful.

The film was directed by Gregg Araki who also made a number of mildly twisted, somewhat queer, teenage-angst ridden films in the 1990s. While those films aren’t as outstanding as Mysterious Skin is, they still aren’t as bad as their IMDB ratings suggest. In particular, I quite liked the old (1995) The Doom Generation. It admittedly contains a good share of superfluous killing (and a zombie!) but it’s also full of fun text dangling around in the background of the scenes…

Text bits in the background in The Doom Generation

… just the kind of detail I love. The film pulsates around the teenage couple Jordan and Amy. Jordan is the doped up and sleepy kind of nice guy whereas Amy is more on the bitchy side and has pretty much everyone they meet knowing and hating her already. After an incident they also pick up the slightly more grown-up Xavier who immediately starts wanting to pull Amy… which she also likes. But somehow Jordan manages to tolerate that while Xavier seems to really eye Jordan in the process… which in turn makes the ‘a heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki’ in the opening title quite funny.

James Duval also stars in some of Araki’s other older films Totally Fucked Up and Nowhere. And I think he’s quite good at what he does or Araki is quite good at pushing young actors. Or both. After all we saw Duval again in Go! or Donnie Darko (and a number of not so great sounding films) and Araki went on to do nothing for a while before returning with Mysterious Skin…

September 20, 2006, 0:14

Tagged as film, gregg araki, james duval, joseph gordon-levitt, mysterious skin, sigur rós.

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