Friday, January 24, 2014

Mysterious Skin (2004): The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Mysterious Skin (2004)
dir: Gregg Araki

Gregg Araki was reeling from the flop of Splendor and a failed television pilot titled This Is How the World Ends. And, after the big cultural "huh?!" to the Teenage Apocalypse trilogy that preceded either, Araki had to redeem himself.

Enter Mysterious Skin, Araki's most mature movie to date. Yet, he did not sacrifice one iota of his confrontational nature to make this harrowing, haunting story of the long term effects of childhood sexual abuse.

Mysterious Skin concerns two young boys. Neil is already starting to become sexually aware at a very young age by discovering masturbation by himself, and by knowing he was already gay. Brian was always a reclusive, nerdy type who was a late bloomer.

At an early age, Neil was groomed to be abused by his baseball coach, and he thought he may have wanted it. Then, Neil and his coach groomed Brian to participate in the sexual play games as well.

Neil would become a colder, distant child who had a personality that would attract who he wanted. He would drink, smoke, do drugs, and participate in sex work in an attempt to fill the vacant hole that has been left in his soul. Brian repressed the whole event, and had blanked out the whole event, attributing it to alien abduction. As an adult, Brian would be searching for the answers to his great childhood mystery.

Brian and Neil circle around each other, until they finally reconnect and everything comes pouring out in a possibly-cathartic reveal of the truth between the boys. Are Brian's or Neil's demons exorcised by this final scene? Araki offers no answers. Whether the boys can figure out that they were damaged and move past it, or if they still retain the cars of too-early sexual experimentation, Gregg Araki doesn't offer any easy answers. He instead merely presents the damage that is done to the boys.

An aspect of the movie is the stories that we tell ourselves in order to function in the world. Neil tells himself, and later Brian, that he was Coach's special boy. He was the favorite, and he was chosen. He was the one who would be over the most frequently, and he participated in the grooming in order to remain the favorite. And, being the favorite special boy made everything better. Brian's brain couldn't handle the sexual nature of the play, and blacked it out, replacing it with a space alien motif. Brian ended up holding on the horror of sexual assault until he was old enough to deal with the ramifications of the assault. He told himself that being abducted by aliens was a better story, even though it was just as damaging and repressed.

Araki doesn't flinch. He doesn't revel in the child molestation as his form of confrontation. There is only one explicit sexual scene, and its a rape scene when Neil is an adult who is hooking in New York City. The child molestation is not meant to be the confrontational aspect of the movie. The post-abuse emotional trauma, however, is Araki's confrontational aspect. He brutes the audience with the internal wreckage that gets externalized throughout the movie. He earns it too.

Mysterious Skin results as Araki's most skilled movie to date. It's observant, touching, and honest. Instead of crafting a movie where the abuser is a demon, he crafts a movie full of humanity where abuse isn't nearly as baffling a concept from the boy's perspective as it usually is. Araki is saying abuse is bad, but he is also saying this is how it could actually happen. For its honesty. For its emotions. For its skill. Mysterious Skin is required viewing.

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