Coming of Age

Gregg Araki has always been the most predictable of American independent filmmakers. Despite their punk rock aura and stories of sexual experimentation, his films have felt strangely tame. They've invariably featured attractively grungy L.A. hipsters, hooking up in every possible combination and philosophizing about the emptiness of life. They've been filled with drugs and threesomes, candy-colored visual schemes and jargon-filled banter, references to American religiosity and sudden bursts of gun violence. The openly gay, Asian-American, Southern California-bred Araki is fascinated by youthful hedonism and marginalized sexual tendencies, yet he's never been able to fully wrap himself around these provocative themes. The director has been so intent on shocking us with his portraits of subversive lifestyles that he's never taken the time to say anything original about them.

Indeed Araki's films have routinely tackled bold subjects with a frustrating lack of depth. The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997) deal with teenage sexual chaos, but they're so excessively laced with Araki's trademark cheekiness that we never take the characters seriously. Both movies boast some trashily entertaining moments but are completely vacuous. Splendor (1999), with its more subdued portrayal of a three-way relationship, was undoubtedly Araki's stab at more mature filmmaking. The result was a blandly watchable but one-dimensional comedy that tiptoed around its audacious topic. Only in two of Araki's earlier films, The Living End (1992), a road movie about two HIV-positive nihilists, and Totally F***ed Up (1993), centered around a group of gay and lesbian teens, do we find genuine strokes of humor and poignancy. Unfortunately, both films are marred by a lack of rhythm and amateurish writing and acting.

Given Araki's penchant for taboo subject matter, it's hardly surprising that his new film, Mysterious Skin (in limited release May 6), deals with child molestation. What is surprising, given the thinness of his previous work, is how much of a knockout the film is. Mysterious Skin is both unflinching and deeply felt. The first striking thing about Araki's new film is how serious it is. The director has been on a 5-year hiatus, and gone are all the customary tics of jumpy editing, campy dialogue, and endless winks at the audience. Right from the start, Araki's shots are carefully composed and the tone is sober. The film has moments of sharp satirical humor--especially in its portrait of middle-American culture--but the director approaches his film's thorny central theme with startling sincerity. It's as if Araki finally understands the gravity of his subject and treats it accordingly, without his usual crutch of irony. And for the first time in his career, Araki does his subject justice. Mysterious Skin is a disturbing, but exceptionally tender exploration of adolescent male sexuality and the delusions we indulge in order to shield ourselves from our most damaging memories.

The narrative complexity of Araki's new film is another indication of the artistic leap Mysterious Skin represents for the filmmaker. This is the first of Araki's films drawn from a source other than the director's own imagination; the movie is an adaptation of Scott Heim's 1995 novel, and Heim himself shares the writing credit. It is perhaps no coincidence therefore that Mysterious Skin has an attention to storytelling conspicuously missing from Araki's other work. The film spans 10 years in the lives of two boys from the same Kansas town, deftly alternating their very different stories. The film begins in 1981, when the boys are eight years old, and Araki takes us through the formative childhood experiences that will haunt them as they grow older. One boy, the blond, runty Brian (George Webster) experiences a blackout followed by recurrent nightmares and bed-wetting, and becomes convinced that he was abducted by aliens. The other, dark-haired, sparkly-eyed Neil (Chase Ellison) is lured into a sexual relationship with his Little League coach (Bill Sage, terrific in an excruciatingly tricky role) while his distracted mother (a nice supporting turn by Elisabeth Shue) shacks up with various boyfriends. Araki shows Coach's seduction of Neil in languorous before-and-after moments that are charged with a queasy dread yet never veer towards sensationalism, while Brian's visions have a dreamlike, Lynchian quality. The director skillfully contrasts these key scenes with the banal, sitcom-ish family lives of the boys to suggest the singular, almost otherworldly impact of traumatic childhood experiences.

Brian's possible brush with aliens and Neil's erotic encounters with Coach indeed become the focal points of these boys' lives as they grow into adolescence. Sullen, handsome Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prostitutes himself to older men and mourns the loss of his relationship with Coach, while the bookish Brian tracks down a fellow alien abductee (Mary Lynn Rajskub) in order to better understand what happened to him. When Brian's inquiries finally lead him to Neil's house, Neil has already left for New York to hustle in a bigger pond. Sex is the unifying theme of Araki's filmography, but never before has the director portrayed it with such intelligence and urgency. In one particularly witty scene, an incredulous client has to teach Neil how to use a condom; Araki pointedly hints at the illusory difference between small town and big city promiscuity. In another scene, a sad-eyed john (Billy Drago) hesitantly takes off his shirt to reveal a body covered by the spots that represent the risk Neil so recklessly ignores. In that one quiet moment, Araki captures the loneliness and danger of anonymous sex more potently than any other filmmaker I can think of. Mysterious Skin is the film in which Araki finally says something about the theme he's been dealing with--yet glossing over--throughout his whole career.

The acting in Araki's films has generally been eclipsed by the noisy sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll scenarios, but here the filmmaker coaxes extraordinary performances out of his two leads. Gordon-Levitt has a long-limbed, feline grace and a gaze that's both mischievous and guilt-ridden. He's an electric screen presence, but an intuitive actor as well. When Neil's line of work finally leads him into a life-threatening situation, the moment is at once nightmarish and heartbreaking: Gordon-Levitt suddenly strips Neil of his bravado, locating the core of existential panic beneath his surliness. Corbet, his all-American handsomeness buried beneath nerdy glasses and a disheveled mop of hair, turns Brian into a plucky yet touchingly naïve hero. It's the less showy role by far, but Brian's quest for answers ultimately provides the film with its emotional arc. When the truth finally dawns on him--in a final scene that's devastating in its inevitability--Corbet registers his character's horror with remarkable sensitivity.

But Araki's greatest coup in Mysterious Skin is his handling of an impossibly touchy subject. Pedophilia has been explored in several recent films, but never with such focus and delicacy. In Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998), it is but one of many forms of emotional and sexual abuse that the characters inflict on one another. And Michael Cuesta's L.I.E., as affecting and sharply observed as it is, is far less sure-footed in its portrayal of pedophile Big John than in its evocation of adolescent sexual awakening. Moreover, both directors focus on the pedophile, seeing him as an almost tragic figure. Mysterious Skin is the rare film that intimately examines the after-effects of child molestation on the victims, who are perhaps less cinematically accessible than the transgressors. This angle allows Araki to dig deeper into the subject than any other filmmaker has been able to. In doing so the director never shies away from his story's most unsettling implication: that pedophilia can stem from a bond as cherished by the child as it is by the adult. Indeed Neil looks back on his summer with Coach as a paradise lost, an idyllic time of freedom, privilege, and love. His pursuit of older men is in large part an obsessive attempt to recapture the past.

Yet in using the teenage Neil's voiceover to relate the young Neil's relationship with Coach, Araki subtly points to the subjectivity of memory. Gordon-Levitt speaks in deep, honeyed tones and his narration, dripping with horniness and irony, is juxtaposed against images of his angelic-looking nine-year-old self. The effect is perversely comic, but the viewer is implicitly challenged to question the reliability of Neil's account: were his feelings for Coach indeed so patently sexual or is he projecting his current sexuality onto a traumatic past experience that he glorifies as his closest glimpse of love? Once again Araki faces his story's darkest undertones head on, pondering the link between childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual identity, but wisely refusing to draw conclusions. Moreover, by emphasizing how oblivious the young Neil is to Coach's intentions (Coach baits him with junk food and video games), Araki identifies the gap between a child's early sexual longings and the decisive step towards their fulfillment. When the boy squirms in discomfort as Coach comes on to him, Araki makes a crucial distinction: Neil's infatuation with Coach is never more than ambiguous, because he does not know how to bring it to life; Coach's showing him how is his abuse of a child's essential innocence, and the act is tantamount to rape. Never before has sexual abuse been deconstructed on screen with such rigor and thoughtfulness.

Mysterious Skin is a flawed film. There are scenes that are choppily edited, a few underdeveloped characters, and one moment involving a snow storm over an abandoned outdoor movie screen that aims for lyricism but falls flat. Yet the director pulls off something as important as it is impressive: a movie about pedophilia and damaged male sexuality that is both hard-hitting and surprisingly gentle. Araki comes closer than any other filmmaker yet to understanding the ravaging impact of sexual abuse, but does it with such compassion that the film ultimately feels like a painful, but particularly heartfelt coming-of-age tale. The triumph of Mysterious Skin is that the director at last grabs his subject by the horns and says something thought-provoking and substantial about it. It is Gregg Araki himself who has finally come of age.

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