Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mysterious Skin

My Gregg Araki virginity has finally been taken! And I'm so glad it was a film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I think that's what drew me to it in the first place. That and I'm always interested in the works of independent filmmaker wunderkinds but I find that I rarely get around to actually watching their films. Film, for me, is a capricious and restless activity. For an hour or a day or maybe even a week, I'll want to see an indie or arthouse flick really, really badly because the subject interests me but by then, another film will have caught my fancy and I'll just add the previous one to my very long list of required cinema. What usually ends up happening is nothing. I forego the smart, unconventional indie flick for a more muscular blockbuster because when it comes to watching movies, although I enjoy thinking while watching a film, such mental indolence trumps my resolve to delve deeper into the art of cinematic medium.

I will say, however, that I was thoroughly disappointed by Gus van Sant's Elephant. Out of all the films he'd done by 2003, his very minimalist indie movie, Elephant, had to be the first. And it kind of hurt.

But Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin is a wonderfully poignant and disturbing (the two go hand-in-hand a lot of the times) film about two boys who are victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of their baseball coach and the different ways that that abuse manifests in their adult lives. One boy, Neil (a fabulous Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is insouciantly cool and beautiful in an Adonis kind of way; he shows violent, sociopathic tendencies and masks his general apathy and cynicism by throwing himself into male prostitution (he's queer but the film shows his queerness prior to his molestation) and the other boy, Brian is a very shy, awkward, naive boy with psychogenic amnesia who is suggested to be asexual. Where Neil is brazen, cocky, and definitely damaged (in one scene he discusses with his friend Wendy how nobody - meaning the middle-aged men who pay him for sexual favours - will ever love him as much as his coach did, because coach really loved him), Brian is pathetic - in a truly passive and ignorant way - who experiences random black-outs and nosebleeds and wet the bed past the appropriate age of doing so. He experiences weird dreams that allude to his molestation and he's convinced that when he was young, he was abducted by aliens and experimented on, which is the only possible explanation for his odd physical ailments. Eventually he goes on the hunt for Neil because he believes that Neil knows something about their "abduction" and when they do re-unite, the outcome is heartbreaking.

We pity both the protagonists but in different ways. The film is so candid about sexuality that it made me uncomfortable a lot of the time. (SPOILER!) I understand that they filmed it in a way that the children would remain ignorant of what was going on in the sexual scenes but that wasn't what disturbed me the most. It's the scene at the end when Brian asks Neil to tell him everything...and Neil does exactly that, all the whilst flashbacks are taking place. The details are really no more graphic than what a adult guy might tell his buddies after a drunken one-night-stand but the difference is that although Neil's an adult now, all of this happened when he was only 8 years old. The juxtaposition of unequivocal consciousness of the grown boys and the utter bafflement of the boys as boys (when the coach tells them to do really dirty things) is what makes the last scene so horrendously harrowing. You cannot believe that such an experience was forced upon them. (END OF SPOILER)

I couldn't imagine having my childhood taken away from me like that.

Read an excellent review from Buttle? Tuttle!


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