After an intriguing opening shot over which the opening titles run, in which we see the face of a laughing boy being buried under a rain of cornflakes, it is as if we have ended up in an amateur movie that could pass by on some child’s net. We see a pathetic, nerdy boy named Brian, with a blond flowerpot haircut and large jam-jar glasses, who shyly ducks into a corner after a baseball game and is spoken to by his disappointed father. Dad had been a lot of things in the past, but never a quitter, he says, shaking his head and walking away. Little Brian apologizes. Moments later, his loving and equally simply sketched (and badly acting) mother enters and in the next scene we see Brian with his sister and mother watching a (apparently) flying over UFO.
As a viewer you think you can already see the storm. This is probably another typical inspiring (childhood) story about the pathetic child who discovers his own talent and self-confidence through some fantastic event or help from “above” and becomes the great hero of the film. The following scenes that focus on the other main character, Neil, do little to debunk this image for the time being. While the scenes about the Brian character were accompanied by an overly sweet, insecure voice-over from the current Brian, the narration voice to Neil’s story is no less caricature, with a thick Southern accent and overly “cool” voice that makes things says like “like: awesome!”. It is clear that the whole must have a nostalgic character. But in case we missed the point, the iconic Atari computer games Donkey Kong, Frogger and Asteroids will be mentioned.
We see that the Nickelodeon content might not be too bad, we see when little Neil is eagerly watching his baseball coach being orally satisfied in the garden. It is from this point that the viewer sits up and becomes curious about which way the story will go. Fortunately, the story is actually still worthwhile. Especially the scenes in which the young Neil is abused by the coach, and especially the structure to this, keep the viewer glued to the screen. The coach is portrayed not as a typical monster, but as a tender, gentle man, whose sexual escapades with Neil and other boys are presented simply as a logical extension of his normal dealings with the children. In fact, this normalcy is all the more troubling to the viewer. The abuser is not an easily identifiable villain, but can be anyone’s neighbor. When the coach’s intentions slowly but surely become clear – he is crawling very close to Neil right now, and those pictures he takes: are they possible? – we start to feel more and more uncomfortable as viewers. The coach manages to lure Neil further and further into his web through his “goodness”, who (like the spectator) is powerless against this. Neil may be in love with his coach, but it’s clear he is being taken advantage of here and something morally reprehensible is going on. His later frustrated attitude and unhealthy lifestyle leave no misunderstanding about this either.
It is the introduction and representation of this lifestyle and the older Neil that are the greatest strength of the film. The not easy subject is treated admirably here by Araki. The sexual situations and feelings are dealt with openly and directly, but without entering the sphere of exploitation or attempting to shock the spectator. Inevitably, as a spectator, you will move awkwardly back and forth in your chair in some scenes, but it all remains relatively subtle and “tasteful”. Although the latter in any case does not apply to the violent rape scene that hits the viewer like a hammer blow and leaves behind defeated. Neil’s encounters with his clients and his attitude are credibly and engagingly communicated by actor Gordon-Levitt. He is blasé, confused, intelligent, comical, tragic, and he knows how to strike almost every nuance perfectly. Every time he’s on the screen, Gordon-Levitt demands the viewer’s attention. The way he deals with his “work” as if it were an average job, without pretending to be a victim but seemingly choosing it himself, is interesting, and funny, to see. Somehow it’s an addiction to him, one that, like any addiction, doesn’t really make him happy.
The parallel story of Brian dreaming about alien abductions and finding out that he has a shared past with Neil is a little less interesting, though satisfying.
acted. The topic of this storyline is just not that exciting. And although the alien stereotypes that we are presented with are (probably) intended as such, they are also not really effective as (semi-) persiflage. Moreover, the underlying drama is not so convincingly concealed. We quickly understand where it’s going and how Brian’s story ties in with Neil’s. The way Brian deals with his trauma, and how this contrasts with Neil’s journey, is interesting in itself.
The supporting actors are nice, although Michelle Trachtenberg is a somewhat lackluster actress, and she also has to deal with some artificial dialogue, which is clearly inspired by the script writer and does not seem to stem from the character itself. Other characters also sometimes have to deal with this.
All in all, “Mysterious Skin” is a film that slowly but surely gets under your skin and gradually manages to make an impression, not least because of the convincing Gordon-Levitt. Ultimately, the film does not have that much to say, but certainly enough to sacrifice a good hour and a half of your free time.