Indie film ‘Mysterious Skin’ a powerful, honest must-see

“Mysterious Skin”Desperate PicturesDirected by Gregg ArakiWritten by Gregg Araki, based on the novel by Scott HeimStarring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill Sage, Jeffrey Licon, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Elisabeth ShueNot Rated (Intended for Adults)/99 minutesAvailable on DVDThree out of four stars

One of the pleasant surprises of last year’s Sundance Film Festival was Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” which was seen by precious few during its brief theatrical run, but is now available on DVD.

One of Araki’s earliest films was titled “Totally F***ed Up.” He’s never been one for subtlety. Indeed, “totally f***ed up” seems to be Araki’s calling card, as his films generally deal with troubled and self-destructive suburban youth.

That trend continues in “Mysterious Skin,” which is kind of a composite of many of Araki’s earlier works. Based on the novel by Scott Heim, “Mysterious Skin” follows Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), a pair of 18-year-olds who don’t know each other but remain unwittingly connected by a traumatic childhood event.

Ten years earlier, Neil and Brian were members of the same little league baseball team. Neil (played at 8 by Chase Ellison) is seduced and sexually abused by his baseball coach (Bill Sage), mistakes that affection for love and grows up to be a gay male prostitute with a penchant for pleasing older men.

Meanwhile, young Brian (George Webster) blacks out for five hours one night and wakes up in a field with a gushing nosebleed. He has no idea what happened to those five hours of his life, but as he gets older he starts to believe that he was abducted by aliens.

It’s not hard to tell where this is going, but that’s not the point. What matters is the way these two boys react, in completely different ways, to this childhood trauma, how they become, as critic Roger Ebert puts it, “different people than they were intended to become.”

Neil is cold and distant and approaches life with a careless and self-destructive hopelessness that eventually leads him to a couple of terrifying experiences that have him re-thinking his chosen vocation.

Brian is perhaps even more disturbed. Eventually, he befriends a girl named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who also believes she was abducted by extra-terrestrials and explains to Brian that his nosebleeds are just the aliens’ “up the nose trick, so you can’t see the scar.”

Eventually, Avalyn helps Brian discover the connection between him and Neil, leading to a touching climactic encounter between the two.

All the film’s performances are good, including Elisabeth Shue, who brings warmth to her role as Neil’s promiscuous but understanding mother. But the film is anchored by its two central performances, and they are the primary reason the film succeeds.

As Neil, Gordon-Levitt has the film’s most difficult task, asking the audience to feel sympathy and affection for a character who, even according to his best friend Wendy, has a “bottomless black hole” in place of a heart. Gordon-Levitt has come a long way since “Angels in the Outfield,” and his work here is stunning. Nearly as impressive is Corbet, who, as the confused and introspective Brian, is the tragic center of the story.

None of the material in “Mysterious Skin” is new to Araki; his films are no stranger to sexual abuse and alien abductions. But unlike some of his earlier films, which often tried much too hard to be edgy and explicit, this film is more subtle and focuses intimately on its characters. Araki still has some growing up to do; some of the grittiness still seems forced and at times even contrived. Regardless, this is an honest and heartbreaking piece of work and one that lingers long after we’ve left the theater.