Despair Breeds Hope

Gregg Arakis Mysterious Skin

In what seemed a brief heyday during the 1990s, Los Angeles filmmaker Gregg Araki positioned himself as the doomsayer of American youth. Work back through Araki's filmography—Nowhere, TheDoomGeneration,TotallyF***kedUp,TheLivingEnd,TheLongWeekend(O'Despair)—andyou'll get a pretty good snapshot of the director's chipper outlook. Araki cultivated an arresting grunge style, but over the years it came to cover for an increasingly stale obsession with alienated and mostly gay youth whose stoned, promiscuous despair felt adolescent in itself, to say nothing of programmatic. Noir comes easy to the relatively privileged, and Araki seemed to run out of ideas, with one dour, humorless movie after another playing out like a bad parody of MelrosePlace.Whether that's why this talented stylist hasn't made a feature film in six years is an open question, but on the evidence of his smart, fresh new movie, a fallow stretch has energized Araki and allowed him to grow up without abandoning his edge. If the subject of MysteriousSkin,a warped, but beautiful and strangely hopeful, coming-of-age tale about two young men struggling to overcome childhood scars, seems all of a piece with Araki's glum existentialism, his grasp of genuine (as opposed to trumped up) suffering has deepened, on the one hand, while on the other he's grown a sense of fun that redeems what would otherwise be insupportably dark material.

Adapted by Araki from a novel by Scott Heim, MysteriousSkinis rather schematically structured by the separate but intertwined stories of two traumatized teenagers from rural Kansas, that cinematic emblem of many a ruined American innocence. Dweeby, anxious Brian Lackey (played as a young adult by Brady Corbet, who played Evan Rachel Wood's older brother in Thirteen)is convinced that during five hours that went missing from his life when he was 8 years old, he was abducted by aliens. In an effort to free himself from the nightmares that plague his sleep, Brian takes up with a similarly deluded young woman (24's Mary Lynn Rajskub), who helps him to locate Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an enigmatic rent boy with a taste for the high-risk casual encounter, who remembers the same afternoon rather differently, though hardly more realistically. In early flashbacks we learn that young Neil (Chase Ellison) spent unsupervised time away from his loving but carnally distracted mother (a very good Elisabeth Shue) and in the company of his Little League baseball coach (Hal Hartley veteran Bill Sage), time that left him with a gift for cruelty to those more vulnerable than he is. We also learn how little Brian (George Webster) suffered through one seriously scary Halloween that left him with a bloody nose, and worse.

Childhood sexual abuse has become the hot social issue du jour in American fringe cinema. But though MysteriousSkinis unsparing and often brutal—Araki has never been one to shirk rubbing dirt in his audience's face—it's neither perverse nor exploitative. Whatever his relationship to the events that unfold here, this is clearly a deeply felt and personal movie for Araki, to whom Gordon-Levitt bears a more than passing resemblance. There's a loving intimacy to Araki's storytelling, which turns out to be as much about the impressionistic way in which childhood is remembered as about the content of the memories. In the mind of at least one of the boys, Coach's kitchen is associated with cascades of brightly colored Cheerios and a cupboard bursting with other kid-friendly breakfast cereals. The image, like Coach himself—a big, prankish kid, as charming as he is untrustworthy—is beguiling and terrifying in almost equal measure, and there is the suggestion that, like most predators, he has persuaded himself as well as Neil that their relationship is built on love. Far harsher is the legacy of that love in Neil's grown-up life in New York with his best friend and roommate, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg, fresh out of TheIcePrincessand engagingly tarted up), providing a vivid contrast to the torpor of his dead-end small town. Yet even in the anonymous sexual encounters in which Neil coldly and willfully endangers his life, there's goofy comedy and a kind of tenderness, so that when the repressed finally returns for both boys, it sparks into a faint but distinct hope for a rebirth, for them as well as their creator.

MYSTERIOUS SKIN WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY GREGG ARAKI, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SCOTT HEIM; PRODUCED BY MARY JANE SKALSKI, JEFFREY LEVY-HINTE AND ARAKI. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE; ART THEATRE, LONG BEACH.

David Ehrenstein talks withJoseph Gordon-Levitt about going from a 1,000-year-old alien posing as a kid on TV'sThird Rock From the Sun to playing a teen hustler inMysterious Skin.

 
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