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Mysterious Skin | Review

Touched by an Alien

Araki replaces the path of self-discovery with the discovery of the past.

Pedophilia and alien abduction are one of the same in this hard to watch, sometimes difficult to digest, coming-of-age tale that looks into the traumatic first experiences of childhood and how they ultimately leave a mental, physical and almost extra-terrestrial scars on children who later become unstable adults. Mapped out with an emotional truth and jarring accuracy, Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin explores the roles of the victim and the victimizer with a tone that is neither malicious or condemning.

As recently witnessed in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, this is populated by characters who are either wronged children or predatory adults and features the sort of obvious deficiencies between parents and children relationships only visible in this branded type of indie film production. The tale offers a paralleled account of two boys who have felt the probing hand – the young gay hustler Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recounting of his childhood trauma reminds of the disturbing Diff’rent Strokes television episode where Arnold’s friend gets lured in by a colorful world full of videogames and candy. In the film’s exploration of the character of Brian, we get an Outer Limits affect, one that clearly represents the abnormality of the foreign touch.

The troubling seduction sequence of a little league baseball coach luring in a child who is fatherless and has a non-supervising mother is like watching one of those nature programs where the spider lays his trap before going in for the kill. The dreamy cereal rainfall sequence is extremely alarming yet it is expertly dished out in both the camera positioning of the shot and by the acting. Young actor Chase Ellison symbolizes innocence and actor Bill Sage with his accompanying porn-star moustache get-up takes on the ballsy role that not many actors would touch. Araki’s adapts the Scott Heim’s novel with style – using narration, inter-cutting montage and a flashback narrative to mesh all the pessimistic, noirish humor.

For non-arthouse filmgoers this will be seen as a cautionary tale about little league coaches but for most this well thought-out production looking into childhood memory and painful life-altering experiences. The film offers many moments that will strike a cord with cinephiles, particularly a strong performance from an up and coming actor with Joseph Gordon-Lewitt’s take on a Kansas-city blue boy. Director Gregg Araki has made a career out of uncomfortable tales about queer adolescent youth culture, and mind you that this is not a feel-good type of film, Mysterious Skin is easily his best effort to date because it the filmmaker’s ability to explore youth through a truthful eye and to discuss the violent acts of rape, child abuse and molestation with an explicit proves that the helmer didn’t include this as a form of sensationalism.

Rating 3.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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