There's something to be said about indie movies. I'm not talking about the indie movies that have huge stars and warrant all kinds of Oscar buzz. Little Miss Sunshine and The Kids Are All Right are not the kind of indie films I'm talking about. I'm talking about the indie movies with little to no budget, stars no one even knew existed, that barely get noticed at all once they finish the festival circuit. Now, why do these films deserve your veneration? They are the films where the best talent is seen, where the truly ballsy things emerge. Small, unnoticed indie films are the places where storytelling boundaries are pushed, incredibly risky choices are made, and, surprise, they usually turn out all the better. If you want a good example of what I'm spewing, look no further then Mysterious Skin. This 2004 festival darling is one the most difficult movies to sit through. It is so unrelenting in its portrayal of teens coping with sexual abuse, among other things, that it makes you want to curl up into a little ball and wish the movie away. But, it's not going away, because, even though it deals with incredibly dark subject matter, Mysterious Skin is amazing, featuring pitch-perfect performances, seriously strong writing, and stylish direction. It is a difficult thing to stomach, but it is incredibly satisfying when you do.
Mysterious Skin tells two stories, each one focusing on an individual character. Brian is a timid, quiet, quite possibly asexual teenager who is convinced he was kidnapped by aliens as a child. Neil is gay prostitute, whose carefree attitude towards sex is the direct result of something that happened to him as a child. See, Brian and Neil are linked, even though they don't know it. When they were young, their baseball coach sexually abused them. Neil actually enjoyed it, and bases his life on that night. Brian experiences psychological amnesia about the whole event, and develops the whole alien story as a subconscious excuse. As the film progresses, Brian seeks clarification as to what actually happened to him that night, eventually leading him to Neil, who is doing everything he can to move away from the town he grew up in.
As a setup, Mysterious Skin will make your skin (ha) crawl. It is so specific in its depiction of how these kids got to be the way they are, that I imagine some people won't even be able to make it through the first thirty minutes. The plot moves forward slowly and methodically, taking its time to delve into each boy's plight. It's a terribly heartbreaking story, and yet you feel strangely elated when it's over. I don't know. I can't explain it. Maybe I'm just twisted, but, regardless, this is a very well told story that is sure to elicit some sort of emotion, whether it be sadness, horror, or empathy.
I don't even know where to begin with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is astounding as Neil. I don't think this is Gordon-Levitt's best performance, but it is easily his bravest. I mean, you have to be pretty courageous to do some of the stuff he does in this film, all the underage sex notwithstanding. JGL really taps into what makes Neil tick, getting at those often hard to find layers, and, in the end, reveals a stronger character then I think even the writers thought existed. JGL consistently ups the ante with every performance, and he's not about to stop here.
Brady Corbet plays Brian, and he is also amazing, easily standing out from Gordon-Levitt's performance. His story is probably the sadder one, since he has no idea what happened to him, but we do. It's heart wrenching seeing him bumble around, looking for clues as to his supposed abduction. This character could have easily been played for laughs, but Corbet doesn't treat the role like that at all. He's quiet, confused, but determined to get some closure. It's a subdued performance, but one that will stick with you.
The supporting players are all uniformly excellent as well, including Michelle Trachtenberg as Neil's "soul mate", Wendy, Jeff Licon as Neil's flamboyantly gay friend, Eric, Elizabeth Shue as Neil's mother, Mary Lynn Rajskub as Avalyn, a women who feeds Brian's abduction theories, and Bill Sage as the coach responsible for the whole mess.
Gordon-Levitt steals the show, but the other members of the cast are more than capable of holding their own.
This scene is something special!
Writer/Director Gregg Araki adapted the script from the novel of the same name by Scott Heim. I haven't read the novel, but, if it is anywhere near as disturbing as the film, I'm not sure I want to. Araki does not hold back in the slightest; this is a truly taxing movie to experience. There's one scene in particular, and you'll know it when you see it, that will make even the hardest of hard clench up in horror, and you'll know it when you see it. He pulls no punches, and makes sure that every dark element of the film is as fully realized as possible.
Now, just because this film will leave you wanting to sit under your shower head and weep doesn't mean it's all depression and sadness. There are some pretty funny moments, and some sweet scenes. The final scene in particular is something to be admired. As Neil and Brian finally come to grips with what happened to them, we see their bond grow over the course of five, maybe ten, minutes, and it is, quite simply, beautiful. It's a devastating scene, but you don't feel like all is lost in the end. You feel hopeful, because you know what these kids went through, and now they know it too. So, you both know that they will get through it together.
But, all this depression should not deter you from seeing this film, because the fact remains that Mysterious Skin is a brilliant movie. Extremely powerful, brutally honest, and exceedingly well made, this is a film that you will hate while watching, but, once it's over, you feel like you've experienced something more then the usual movie can provide. It's tough, but it's good!