Jaggedly Dreamy Film Contemplates the Unthinkable


Is it possible for a child to “love” a pedophile? Not by any reasonable definition of love. But in daring to contemplate the unthinkable, Gregg Araki’s best film in years proves that it’s possible to talk about pedophilia—indeed, to condemn it— without resorting to the histrionics of Fox News amber alerts, and furthermore to acknowledge children as sexual beings without echoing the rhetoric of NAMBLA literature. Based on a 1995 novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin crosscuts between two boys in ’80s small-town Kansas, essentially strangers but united by a defining moment only one of them recalls. At age eight, Brian (eventually played by Brady Corbet) blacks out after a baseball game, and those five hours of unconsciousness increasingly haunt him as he grows into a gawky teen plagued by nosebleeds and nightmares about alien abductions. In stark contrast, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Little League star turned hustler, has always had a sexual curiosity well beyond his years. For a movie premised on sexual trauma, Mysterious Skin is often disconcertingly sexy—and its eroticism has a surprisingly bracing effect. The film maintains its ethical stance without lapsing into moral judgment; there are no irrational blanket disavowals of sex. Jaggedly dreamy, tucked into an ambient cocoon of a score (by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie), Mysterious Skin suggests a reverie with multiple awakenings. Fittingly, the ending, which crescendos to a dizzying moment of mutual reckoning, offers catharsis but not escape.