Sign up for our free newsletter
Once upon a time, human connection was best expressed by putting a finger up someone else’s ass. Or at least that’s what you might think after watching The Doom Generation, the sexed-up road movie that was director Gregg Araki’s 1995 breakthrough. Ten years and three features later, the former enfant terrible clearly has a more complex view of relationships. His latest, Mysterious Skin, is a look at a childhood trauma from two points of view, a sort of clinically depressed Sliding Doors that turns on how one event can shape people in completely different ways. Brian (Brady Corbet) is an extremely introverted 18-year-old mama’s boy who has no clear memory of a five-hour period of his life a decade ago. When he’s not studying, he keeps a journal based on his faint recollections of alien abduction, one of which eventually leads him to look up a former Little League teammate for clues about what might have happened that missing night. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is now a very bored, very reckless teenage hustler, taking meager delight in the easy money and false sense of power his sexuality affords him. But the real reason Neil is turning tricks is to find some glimmer of his first love, the Little League coach who abused—or, in Neil’s mind, simply seduced—him at, yes, age 8. The journey each of the boys makes before their devastating reunion makes up the bulk of the film, which marks the first time Araki hasn’t used his own source material. That the characters originated with novelist Scott Heim makes all the difference in terms of emotional payoff. Although still (as one old Araki title puts it) totally f***ed up, the people here are far more engaging than the drug-addled, motormouthed hotties of Doom or 1997’s Nowhere. The notable exception is Michelle Trachtenberg’s Wendy, who’s given precious little to do as Neil’s best friend, the one character desperately trying to talk some sense into him. But then, this is a Gregg Araki film, so there’s only so much room for a levelheaded, emotionally stable heterosexual looking out for other people’s best interests. Segueing from its main characters’ sometimes fanciful Midwestern upbringings to their troubled adult lives, Skin accrues depth slowly and deliberately, aided by cinematographer Steve Gainer’s dreamlike images and an ambient-cum-shoegaze score by minimalist composer Harold Budd and former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. The best thing here, though, is Gordon-Levitt, who absolutely disappears into the role of Neil. As a young man willing to do anything just to feel something, he’s a typical Araki character, but one with an important distinction: For whatever reason, he knows better than to put much stock in anal probes.