Have you ever seen a truly bad film about sexual abuse? I don’t know if the subject material is so intimate and powerful that it just takes over a film, or if the filmmakers who make movies about sexual abuse feel so personally about it that they can’t help but to make a commendable film. To be honest, though, as good as many of them are, I don’t like this subgenre of film. I don’t even know if you’re supposed to like it. I will watch a movie like Capturing the Friedmans, L.I.E., or Bastards Out of Carolina, appreciate it, and then do my best to scrape it from my brain and forget about it. The problem, of course, is that they’re often so searing and traumatic to watch that it’s difficult to put it out of your mind.
Mysterious Skin is definitely one of those movies, and if you could separate the sexual abuse — as well as a remarkable performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt — from the rest of the film, I’m not sure how successful it would be, or if the sexual abuse simply obscures another generic indie flick with generic shoe-gazer music. Maybe the subject material is just so overwhelming that it’s difficult to remain objective. I don’t think Mysterious Skin is a particularly well-crafted film; I don’t think it’s shot in a particular original or inventive way; and aside from JGL and Elisabeth Shue in a supporting role, I don’t think it’s particularly well acted. In fact, I think that Gregg Araki’s follow-up, Smiley Face with Anna Faris, did for Araki what every other film that Larry Clark has directed since Kids did for him: Expose him as a fairly mediocre director who was recognized less for his talents and more for the provocative subject material.
Mysterious Skin is nevertheless a powerful film, and a gut-wrenching one, and not one I particularly cared to revisit. I haven’t seen any of the previous efforts from Araki — who is a seminal figure in the New Queer cinema — and I’m not sure I want to. It feels too often like queer cinema focuses on the dysfunction instead of the positive aspects of homosexuality, and from what I know of Araki, he’s symptomatic of that. You just don’t see a lot of heartwarming, crowd-pleasers about gay people coming to terms or having that life-altering awakening, and if you do, it’s relegated to the comedic subplot in a bad studio comedy. Instead, you get promiscuity, sexual abuse, pedophilia, or disease. Are they powerful topics that should be discussed? Of course. But not to the exclusion of everything else.
I really thought that the success Brokeback Mountain would open the floodgates, that we’d get our gay Love, Actually and, eventually, gay versions of bad studio romantic comedies. If (some) same-sex couples now get to experience the highs and lows of the marital institution, it’s only fair that they should experience and suffer the same in Hollywood products. It’s been five years since Brokeback and the closest we’ve really gotten to that again is Apatow’s brand of bromance. Now, if we could just take it one step further — a romcom featuring Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill called Bears — maybe we’d be getting somewhere. Instead, serious gay relationships are still too often depicted as something we should feel uncomfortable about.
Mysterious Skin (2004), which predates Brokeback is largely reflective of that. Two eight-year-old boys are molested by their little league coach, and in the decade ensuing, it’s all that Neil (JGL) can think about, while Brian doesn’t remember a thing, but is haunted by that traumatic absence. As a teenager, Brian (Brady Corbet) suffers from frequent nosebleeds and fainting spells. He’s convinced that he was once abducted by aliens, which is the only explanation he can surmise to explain the symptoms of his teenage years.
Meanwhile, Neil — who knew he was gay before the molestations and, in fact, cherished his relationship with his coach — has spent his teenage years attempting to replicate that lost summer. He turns tricks in his small town, exclusively with middle-aged mostly closeted men. Later, he moves to NYC with his best friend, Wendy (MIchelle Trachtenberg) and continues in his profession, not for the money, but in an attempt to duplicate the intimacy he had with his coach. While Neil engages in increasingly dangerous sexual behavior, Brian is attempting to track down Neil — who he has visions of in his nightmares — and find some answers to explain what’s been fucking with his brain for a little over a decade.
There’s not much else to Mysterious Skin — it’s aimless in a way that’s endemic to these sort of shoegazer indies. Watching it, all you can feel is an alternating sense of boredom and dread, sensing that the worst is yet to come. While the end does provide a certain bit of relief, there’s no hopefulness to it. Genocide films like Schindler’s List, The Pianist or Hotel Rwanda are hard movies to watch, obviously. But they leave you with something to grasp onto — a small sense of humanity buried beneath the harrowing massacres. But Mysterious Skin and a many of the other sexual abuse films I’ve seen in the past, especially where they involve gay relationships, often just leave you empty and unsettled. Maybe that’s by design, but then again, maybe it’s the optimistic asshole in me that wants for something more.