Mysterious Skin (2004)


The most notable food item in this piece is the cereal. Unfortunately, like the rest of this film – it is difficult to celebrate the food scenes in this film after seeing them in context. None the less, I suppose if you want a snack recommendation to accompany this one, get yourself a bowl of Fruit Loops and buckle up.

LGTBQ Film Series #10:

“Mysterious Skin” (2004) was directed by Gregg Araki, a known major contributor to the New Queer Cinema movement, first coined by the academic B. Ruby Rich in Sight & Sound magazine in 1992 to define and describe a movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking in the early 1990s. Araki’s career started with a few low budget beginner flicks and then branched out in the early 90’s with the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” which presented sexual fluidity, teen isolation and aggression and other adolescent issues, which he continued to focus on in films later in his career. “Mysterious Skin” is no different, telling the tale of two young boys who experienced the same trauma and how it affected them later on in their teenaged years and early adulthood. Based off the book of the same title by Scott Heim, which was largely based on his own life, viewers are able to conceptualize the way that abuse victims haunted past can manifest itself in various ways.

A young Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison) and his peer Brian Lackey (George Webster) were both victims of abuse by their Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage) during a vulnerable period of their life when their mothers were raising them alone during separations from the father figures in their family. Coach took advantage of these boys in every conceivable way, but only one of them was able to remember it.

Teenaged Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt) has become a sadistic, sexually deviant prostitute – being described by his best and one of his only friends as someone with a bottomless black hole where other people have a heart. His sexual encounters seem to replicate the preferences of his own abuser, and we even see some gruesome scenes of his abuse towards other children as a means of getting his way. He is clearly detached and aloof as a coping mechanism from his difficult childhood. Conversely, an older Bryan (Brady Corbet) is marked by the conviction that he saw a UFO as a child and builds an obsession around alien encounters. He is a more studious, loner and as his story unravels, it becomes clear that he has supplanted his most unwelcome memories with science fiction as a means of grappling with his blurred memories.

Utilizing cutting techniques and flashbacks, the film incorporates a great deal of erratic visuals (by cinematography Steve Gainer) which helps to presents the content with a moody and elevated way, as though we are experiencing a fever dream along with its characters. This portion of the film works really well, as does the costume design (Alix Hester), soundtrack, and casting of some of the lesser important characters (Michele Trachtenberg as Wendy, Elizabeth Shue as Mrs. McCormick and Jeffrey Licon as Eric).

What did not work was the screenwriting particularly when it came to dialogue and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance – two things upon which the film heavily relied. The writing was either overtly brazen in a way that almost felt emotionally manipulative or spoon-feeding the audience to a degree that was distracting, or it was melodramatic and corny. It started to feel like an after-school special, making what should have been some of the most powerful scenes lose the power in their punch. It was distracting. The hokey dialogue was then met with an uncomfortably forced sulky performance from Levitt. One might argue that Levitt’s Neil was meant to have a tight lipped sneer at all times, and that would be true, but his facial expressions and demeanor were ultimately still something to be desired and were not convincing for most of the film. It was awkward.

Despite those complaints, the film has been well-respected and beloved since its release 16 years ago, and is well on it’s way to being somewhat of a cult classic, even while being so dismal. As many filmmakers have not touched on the topic of child abuse, and those who have attempted have not often done it well, “Mysterious Skin” is one of the most provocative, heartbreaking, and beautiful reflections of such a heinous thing.

Authors Note: It has appeared on several LGTBQ film lists, and having not seen it before, it was included on the list for Inglorious Baguettes. However, after watching, I am hesitant to classify it as such – as conflating pedophilia with gay sexual orientation is harmful and incorrect – and though the characters at points identify as queer in the film, it is clear that their orientation was defined by the abuse and not developed naturally.

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