Based on Scott Heim’s novel, director Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” probes the disturbing complexities of pedophilia and child molestation without devolving into the maudlin, the melodramatic or the grotesque. And rather than zooming in on the act of pedophilic sexual assault itself, the film looks at the lasting and varying ways such violence scars the lives of its victims.
Two Yale peer health organizations, Consent and Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention, organized a screening of “Mysterious Skin” last Wednesday in honor of Sexual Health Awareness Week. And while it may seem peculiar to highlight child sexual assault on a college campus — where many believe that risky sexual behavior and date rape are of greatest concern — Safety Net member and liaison to Consent Sean Bland ’08, who organized last week’s screening, said his goal in showing the film was to reach out to a broader range of issues not typically dealt with during Sexual Health Awareness Week.
“We don’t just deal with date rape and stranger rape,” Bland said. “We also deal with issues relating to sexual assault, including child sexual assault as well as gender identity, sexual identity and broader issues in general.”
Issues such as rape, prostitution and safe sex do come up in “Mysterious Skin,” but the film’s primary focus is inarguably child sexual assault and how it affects the lives of two teenagers from the small town of Hutchinson, Kansas. The film follows the parallel stories of Brian Lackey (Brady Corbett) and Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they both struggle on the brink of adulthood to reconcile the traumatic events of their respective childhoods.
Since he was eight years old, Brian has been plagued by nightmares and inexplicable nosebleeds, which he attributes to being abducted by aliens. The same summer that Brian’s nosebleeds began, Neil was repeatedly molested by their Little League coach (Bill Sage). Narrated in turn by both characters, the main thrust of the story comes as the two boys rediscover one another and their unspoken connection ten years later.
During those ten years, Brian becomes a dorky, oddly nonsexual introvert in oversized glasses, Neil a darkly beautiful gay hustler. This extreme polarization of the two boys’ characters — one timid and asexual, the other confident and hypersexualized — is mirrored in their extremely different experiences with Coach (who is never named beyond the title). Brian is unquestioningly traumatized to the point of substituting false memories in place of what actually happened. But for Neil — whom the audience is supposed to infer was born gay, has always been precociously sexual, orgasms for the first time while watching his mother with one of her many lovers — Coach is simultaneously his molester, a bastardized father figure and the great love of his life.
Such tragic complexities follow Neil throughout his transformation into a detached gay prostitute, first at a local Kansas playground and then in New York: his first client is a traveling snack-food salesman who has a “Daddy” keychain dangling from his rear-view mirror.
And Gordon-Levitt manages to portray such a complex character with staggering success. His troubled Neil will remind anyone who has seen “Brokeback Mountain” of Heath Ledger’s aggressively understated, nuanced and terse performance of Oscar acclaim. Gordon-Levitt manages to communicate his character’s emotional depth and damaged personality without sacrificing the casually aloof, unaffected nature that makes Neil such a compellingly multi-dimensional character.
Something should also be said of Araki’s exceptional directing, as well as of the noteworthy cinematography. Dealing with an issue as explosive as child sexual assault, especially when attempting to depict such abuse on-screen, always runs the risk of being wildly misunderstood. But Araki manages to maintain a brutal candor and realism without compromising the integrity of the child actors and without being too visually explicit — nonetheless, audience members will be uncomfortable.
“Mysterious Skin” is a cinematic achievement worth noting, even if the issues it addresses may not feel directly relevant to the life of the typical college student. And while last week’s screening stimulated little immediate discussion — due in part, no doubt, to the difficulty of digesting such an emotionally intense film — “Skin” does raise important questions about sexual health and identity. Regardless of sexual history or orientation, such topics — tenets of Sexual Health Awareness Week — possess a universality that merits discussion on any college campus.