Sunday, August 14, 2005

Movie Review: Mysterious Skin

Content Warning This movie contains high level sexual violence, sexual references, and coarse language. It seems that just about every day child abuse or pedophilia are uncovered and reported in the media. Gregg Araki tackles this most difficult subject in his movie Mysterious Skin. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an eight-year-old boy on the local Little League baseball team - he's the best player. His coach, who is never named (played by Bill Sage), takes Neil home and begins a longterm sexual relationship with him. Another boy, Brian (Brady Corbet), around the same time, wakes up in the basement of his home, blood running from his nose, and missing five hours of his life. Mysterious Skin follows these two boys into adolescence where we see the destructive impact of their childhood abuse. Neil becomes a prostitute who picks up elderly men in his local playground and later in bars and nightclubs in New York. Brian spends his life trying to work out what happened to him during the five hours he can no longer remember. He comes to believe, after watching a documentary on TV about alien abduction, that he too was "taken". As the two boys' paths converge, Brian comes to believe that Neil may have the answer to his missing time. They finally meet and Brian is confronted with a truth almost too great to bear. Mysterious Skin will not be for everyone. It is disturbing, confronting and, at times, explicit. It is quite clear from the movie, however, that the director shot the film in such a way that the children who played the young boys did not have to say or do anything inappropriate. Even so, Araki has provided his viewers with two agonising portraits of boys whose emotional compasses are completely destroyed by sexual abuse. A movie on this topic, to be true to reality, inevitably must show sex scenes. However, Araki has managed to construct them in such a way that they convey the horror and agony of abuse and avoid any titillation or prurience. They are shocking and there will be those who will choose not to see the movie because of the subject matter and the sex scenes. In my home state of South Australia, one of our politicians attempted to get this movie banned because of its treatment of pedophilia and the alleged possibility of pedophiles obtaining information on how to operate. However, after a lengthy session of Australia's censorship board, the film retained its R (only able to be seen by 18 years and older) rating. The Australian newspaper reported the convenor of the Board as saying that "[t]he subject matter of Mysterious Skin is handled sensitively and the film unambiguously condemns child sexual abuse." The Australian also quotes Araki who, in response to these criticisms of his film, said,
the film isn't about pedophilia itself. "[It] is really [about] the emotional journey you go on with these boys and how they deal with the aftermath ..." He [Araki] is specially irritated by the claim made by the Australian Family Association's Richard Egan that the film might encourage pedophilia by showing potential offenders how to operate. "There is no new information in the film in terms of how to do it," Araki says. "We show the cliche of the sex offender having a lot of candy to offer his victim. The idea that this is telling a sex offender how to seduce a child is literally the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and the fact that it is a serious threat to my movie is depressing."
Mysterious Skin is an important movie. It is not about pedophilia per se. It is about the damaging aftermath that follows this crime. It is a gruelling film to watch because we are forced to enter the emotional world of the two boys who experience the results of their abuse in two very different ways. The two main actors brilliantly convey the complexity of the emotions they experience. The film confronts us with a very real horror in our society and gives us the opportunity to understand, at least to some small degree, what it must be like to live with such a traumatic, life changing experience. If it makes us more vigilant and understanding then the film will have been worthwhile. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'A gorgeous, heartbreaking and utterly convincing work of art.' - A O Scott/New York Times Negative Review 'Had Araki chosen to illuminate, rather than exploit, the traumatic aftermath of child molestation, his wallow in the horrors of Mysterious Skin might have had a purpose. As it stands, his film is just another trashy look at America as the land of imbecilic perverts.' - Bill White/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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