Two boys. One can’t remember. The other can’t forget.

[Note: This film may be a trigger to some due to its dark subject matter.]

“Mysterious Skin” is a brilliantly directed film that gives an honest glimpse into darkness. Based on the novel by Scott Heim of the same name, the plot balances between the lives of two adolescent boys who were victims of child abuse years earlier and how both of their lives were affected. Director Gregg Araki adapted the novel and pieced this film together in such a manner that the viewer can truly understand the past that connects the two boys. I’ve had this film in my collection for a while, but I only recently read the novel it is based upon. Additionally, while rewatching the film, I was reminded that it is not a film most people will watch more than once. “Mysterious Skin” can be a difficult film to watch, partly due to the subject matter alone, but also because of how Gregg Araki has pieced it together perfectly.

Still from "Mysterious Skin" - a young Brian and young Neil stare at each other in the dim, blue light of a television

Synopsis of “Mysterious Skin”

“Mysterious Skin” starts off with an eerily music while out of focus colours fall all over the screen. Slowly the camera pans downward and focuses so that we see it’s actually cereal falling over a young boy’s head. Then a sudden blackout, and we hear a voiceover as teenage Brian (Brady Corbet) begins to tell his story of how he lost 5 hours of his life when he was 8 years old. It’s simple, abrupt, and quickly sets the tone for the film. During this sequence of flashback scenes, we watch how Brian is found by his sister with a bloody nose. We watch as a concerned mother cleans up and takes care of a traumatized young boy while his dad appears not to care. Brian mentions how it was after that unknown incident when he started having random nosebleeds and blackouts. While watching television, the screen turns fuzzy while a blue light descends upon the house. Brian, his mom, and his sister step outside and watch what appears to be a UFO landing. Blackout.

We next see a different young boy watching something though blinds, illuminated by a light outside. Teenage Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gives his initial voiceover, talking about how he ejaculated for the first time while watching his mom and her current boyfriend having sex on their swing set. He is blunt, crass, hides nothing – and everything has a sexual tone. We see a quick glimpse of an attractive yet rugged man, before Neil ahead to his time playing little league. We quickly are shown who the man is – Neil’s coach, whom Neil quickly develops a crush for despite being only 8 years old. Neil continues his part of the story as he describes, and we watch, how the coach invited him over after their  baseball games, having a house stocked with junk food and video games. We watch as an innocent young boy is groomed, after finally finding a father figure who seems to care about Neil – but a bit too much. Things quickly take a darker, sexual nature culminating with Neil laying on his back on the floor, Coach hovering over him leaning down to kiss him. Blackout. Cue extreme awkwardness as Neil’s voiceover goes into detail of how he felt afterwards, that the mess on the floor looked like a kaleidoscope had shattered. Coach tells him, creepily, how it’s ok to have liked what they did. Blackout & skip ahead to Halloween.

Brian is trick or treating with his sister, but they get separated. Suddenly, a voice calls out to Brian “I thought that was you” as a humanoid silhouette shape bathed in eerie blue light comes closer and closer. Blackout. A few hours later, Brian is returned home – just as mute and traumatized as he was that first night a few years ago; unable to remember what happened. Neil is also out trick or treating the same night, but with his new friend Wendy. The grab a different boy and light fireworks from the boys mouth. Wendy says that he’ll tattle on them, except Neil has a solution – he suddenly starts jerking off the young boy in front of Wendy before we watch his head disappear. We listen to young Neil talk to this boy as he does this, until teenage Neil’s voice kicks back in as he describes how showing this part of himself to Wendy bonded them for life.

Now we’re in current time – both Neil and Brian are teenagers. Their lives still remain separate, at least for a bit longer. Brian has started community college and continues his fascination into aliens and his potential abduction – which leads him first to Avalyn. After hearing her story on a TV special, Brian reaches out for help trying to understand if his blackouts, missing time, and bloody noses are because he was abducted himself. Even I’ll admit, Avalyn seems a bit eccentric, but her character is crucial because she helps Brian dig deeper into the details of what he does remember – such another boy from his little league team who suddenly started appearing in his dreams. As for Neil, Wendy moved to NYC leaving both Neil and their mutual friend Eric behind. Realizing that there is nothing left for him in their small town where he’s slept with every john in town, Neil decides to follow Wendy – which leaves Eric, who has an unreciprocated crush for Neil. When Eric and Neil’s mom (Elisabeth Shue) pull into their drive after putting Neil on his bus, who is standing in their drive? Brian, in search of an N. McCormick – who he tracked down from a little league photo, as Brian has a strong feeling that they both were abducted.

Brian and Eric end up becoming good friends. As they hang out in Neil’s absence, Eric fills Brian in on all of the details about Neil and his “lifestyle” while corrupting the reserved and almost loner Brian. Eric also thinks the entire alien abduction story is crazy! At one point when they’re stoned and drunk, Eric asks Brian why the alien he sketched is wearing baseball cleats…  While Brian spends more time with Eric, his friendship with Avalyn comes crashing down. She stops over one night and makes a move on him, except as she is trying to undo his pants, it triggers a flashback of his “abduction” – he pushes her away and out of the picture. It’s clear that Brian is no longer sure of his alien abduction theory, but requires Neil to help piece the puzzle together. Neil, meanwhile, is struggling in New York City. Hustling is not quite the same as he is used to, and Neil gets a harsh glimpse into AIDs and the real risks of his “career.” Neil’s struggles hit rock bottom when a hookup ends up in rape and assault.

Our two boys finally meet in person over Christmas as Neil’s mom bought him a plane ticket to come home. But their reunion is not a happy one, because the scattered pieces of their childhood connection have slowly become clearer. Neil shatters that veil and takes Brian to Coach’s home. In a difficult scene to watch, Neil casually fills Brian in on the connection he had with their little league coach; how Neil was his “special boy” but would occasionally include others in on their fun. In a brilliantly written scene where the acting talents of both boys shine, the missing pieces are fit together. The darkness and challenging aspect of their abuse is lightened a bit by Christmas carolers singing “Silent Night” while Neil holds onto Brian who is struggles to cope with the revelation. And as angelical music slowly starts to play, the camera angle switches to an overhead shot of the boys that slowly zooms out. A voiceover monologue from Neil overlays on top of all this as he explains how he wished that he could go back and undo it all, that he was sorry for everything that happened. How he wanted to escape and “just leave this world behind and rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear.”

Still from "Mysterious Skin" - Neil leans out the car window, over Eric while Wendy pops her head in from the backseat

The Good

The success of “Mysterious Skin” is directly a result of Gregg Araki’s involvement. The script is brilliant; Araki doesn’t hold back in the screenplay adaptation of Neil’s already powerful novel. The story is then edited and pieced together in a way that takes full advantage of dramatic irony. As viewers, we have an extra insight into happened – but even we are left in the dark on how Brian fully fits into the picture. There are plenty of subtle hints and clues, pieces of the puzzle that when it all comes together, actually allows us to relate and react to the horror of the child abuse just as Brian does. I also learned something quite interesting about the filming – Araki filmed the child actors in such a way that they were unaware of the sexual molestation and pedophilia content at the crux of the story. He then edited all of those separate scenes together, along with the Coach’s viewpoint, to give us the final & complete flashback scenes we see in the film.

As for other aspects of my review criteria, they all are quality. The acting in “Mysterious Skin” is simply incredible. All of the actors successfully bring their character to life – sometimes eerily so. Equally, the cinematography is excellent and innovative throughout the film. And when paired with a beautifully composed score, “Mysterious Skin” gives off a vibe similar to another brilliant yet haunting film, “Requiem For A Dream.”

There are a few changes from novel to screenplay I should note, but that is to be expected in an adaptation. However, the only one that has any real effect is that the novel is told though multiple vantage points –  not just Neil and Brian’s viewpoint. Araki simplifies this for the film, while adding the use of voiceover to really capture the darkness of the story, especially at the beginning and end.

The bad

I really have nothing negative to say about “Mysterious Skin” – it really is just THAT great!

Still from "Mysterious Skin" - Teenage Brian leans on teenage Neil's shoulder, after finally learning the truth of what happened years ago between them

“Mysterious Skin” it is not a film with a happy ending; it is dark, emotional, full of suspense and drama and packs quite a punch. I think the most powerful aspect is how accurate and realistic child abuse can be, and how it is often seen differently be everyone involved. By the time the credits start to roll, we finally know the entire truth of what happened, yet it doesn’t actually resolve all of the conflict for our leads. Instead, we are left hanging in the horror and awkwardness and are forced to resolve our own feelings towards the difficult subject matter. In short, it’s brilliant – albeit troubling – and a film I highly recommend watching!

Queer Relevance of “Mysterious Skin”

“Mysterious Skin” is relevant to the queer community for more than the obvious reason – that one of the two male leads is gay, along with his friend Eric. We also get a honest glimpse into the world of hustling and johns, even a difference between rural and the city – including the dangers. The film also touches on a darker aspect that is unfortunately relevant, child abuse of young boys by an adult male and role model. It’s a dark film that shows the seedier and dark side of things, which in itself makes it quite relevant to our community.