Director: Gregg Araki
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue
Neil (Chase Ellison, later Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a precocious 8 year old who has a crush on his baseball coach (Bill Sage). Coincidentally, Coach is into young boys, and conveniently for them both, Neil’s single mother (Elisabeth Shue) is happy to let them hang out in private together as it frees her up to drink the local dive dry. Meanwhile, across town, introverted Brian (George Webster, later Brady Corbet) believes he’s been abducted by aliens, and has regular nosebleeds. It isn’t long until video games and chocolate treats are converted into kisses and blowjobs, and Neil grows up into a tearaway street hooker who moves to New York where he gets ripped off and beaten up.
A new film from Gregg Araki, the director of the dreaded The Living End, Mysterious Skin is marketed as a daring film that probes a “taboo subject”, but this is rather misleading advertising.
Adult-child sex may be an inflammatory topic, but it isn’t a taboo topic. Pedophilia and child sexual abuse are stock themes of some of the world’s most popular talk-shows and radio talk-back programs, and are the catalyst for the plot-lines of innumerable episodes of various weekly television dramas. As far as I know, when you have everyone from the editor of the Illawarra Mercury to the Pope talking about something, it can’t really be termed as a “taboo subject”.
The genuinely taboo subjects which exist in the story of Mysterious Skin (but which go timidly unexplored) are pre-adolescent sexuality and the existence of mutually consensual sexual relationships between people on opposite sides of the age of consent. Pre-teens have quasi-carnal thoughts and nascent romantic and emotional urges that are obscure but tangible. Some erotic relationships between adults and adolescents are mutually enriching, romantic and hot. Feelings and desires experienced with confusion in childhood are quite unambiguous in hindsight.
Mysterious Skin is most promising early on when, through voice-over, we hear the young Neil reminiscing that - before he hit puberty - he sensed a crush on his handsome baseball coach, a blond hunk who made him feel warm, safe and mysteriously horny. I can remember having a crush on my third-grade teacher, a hirsute disciplinarian who always seemed to have a bit of extra time for me. I never had thoughts about physically-sexual acts with him, but there was definitely some vague mist of erotic compulsion there. In Mysterious Skin, young Neil’s attraction to his baseball coach produces a pre-pubescent form of erotic desire which Neil, through voiceover, readily acknowledges.
Yet Mysterious Skin executes a whiplash-producing one-eighty when it approaches Neil and Coach’s sexaul affair. Though Neil may be too young to cope with actually consumating his amorphous feelings, once the koochie starts he changes his story in the blink of an eye. Neil’s erotic/romantic nostalgic voiceovers cease instantly, Araki’s previously Coach-eroticizing camera work flips over to malevolent-pedophile closeups, and young Neil whimpers and squirms with passive discomfort as he is “molested”. We don’t hear another syllable about Neil’s perception of his role in the whole thing, which has mysteriously taken on the new skin of a traumatic event which drives him into an illicit life of self-destruction.
Similarly saccharine stories have been told a million times before, and usually, they screen on TV before 8.30pm. So, I’m really not sure what’s so taboo or daring about this disappointingly stock-standard child abuse story. Brian’s alien-invasion repressed-memory is an embarrassingly appropriate accidental metaphor for a film that cannot come to terms with the guts of itself and which as a result splits off into a separate, more digestible parallel universe.
Araki’s eroticization of the working-class American teen-queer is tiresome and creepy. It’s incongruous to see him, as a screenwriter, write his characters into tragic molestation circumstances, then, as a director, dress them in vests and low-slung hispters and tickle them all over with his voyeuristic camera as he places them in an endless string of sexual encounters.
I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Araki’s sex scenes are stilted and the accompanying dialogue robotic. He may be going for some kind of fusion of Andy Warhol and Matt Sterling, but he doesn’t pull it off. He’s not assisted by his lead actors, all of whom are woeful. Chase Ellison is a vile and annoying child actor who looks for all the world like Barbara Feldon as “99″ in “Get Smart” and who talks like Heather O’Rourke, the doomed girl from Poltergeist. Pre-teen boys can be a little androgynous, but this one’s a freaking female impersonator.
Araki’s ACT-UP AIDS-thesis from The Living End seems to have hit the cutting room floor somewhere along the line, with lesion-covered tricks and talk of dangerous unsafe sex ominously stalking Neil’s every move. Unfortunately, Araki’s held on to cloying, infantile sentimentality: after Neil is picked up by a rough trick who hits him over the head with a baby oil bottle, melancholy guitar chords pluck on the soundtrack and Neil slumps around with a scratch on his face for the rest of the film. The city-as-big-scary-place theme is at odds with Araki’s apparent desire to be cool and edgy and the only thing his characters ever seem to want to do is find love and a warm nurturing space, and they flee back to Kansas the minute they meet someone who’s a bit rough.
There also seems to be some unwritten rule in Araki films that in at least every other secene, at least one character has to yell “Fuck You!’ at someone or mumble about how “fucked up” everything is, before eating some candy and/or breaking into someone’s house. Hot-boxing car trips also seem to be compulsory. Punk came and went a few decades ago, while the whole disaffected American brat thing just never got going - for me at least - at all.
Araki’s contemporaries Gus van Sant and Todd Haynes have evolved into accomplished and skilled film makers whose quirky early-career affectations blossomed into distinctive, expressive auteurship. Barely a half-step from the Video-8 film festival aesthetic that gave him his start, Araki is either unwilling or unable to make a similar transition.