With no clear memory of what happened to him as an eight-year-old, Brian (Brady Corbet) suffers repeated blackouts and believes aliens abducted him. As Mysterious Skin reveals, however, he and his best friend Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) were molested by their Little League coach. While Neil does remember what happened, he fails at first to see anything wrong with Coach’s actions. He tries to view the relationship as a “natural” part of maturation.
Such efforts to reconstruct memory lie at the center of Gregg Araki’s film. As Neil narrates his first day of Little League, the camera is close in on the eight-year-old Neil’s (Chase Ellison) face. Older Neil states that he was already “in love,” and the camera slowly pans up to reveal a hulk of a man, the low angle underlining the child’s perspective. Feeling ignored by his alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue), Neil reminisces that he was the coach’s star player and “favored” boy. It is only later that he comes to see he was a victim and not a lover.
Brian’s troubles with the past are more visible. He still lives with his single, overprotective mother (Lisa Long). Because Brian’s mother does not share his eagerness for discovering the truth about what happened to him, Brian seeks help from abduction enthusiast Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub). As Brian and Avalyn discuss the possibilities of abduction, his memories take different shapes. The ominous figure looming over him grows clearer and Brian realizes he must find the one other person he can see in his mind, Neil.
Only Neil knows what actually happened to Brian, but he guards his own relationship with Coach closely. Because the viewer knows the connection between the boys (via flashbacks), the film’s primary tension has to do with how Brian discovers the truth. Nothing here is evident. We may think we have unlocked Brian’s past, but we come to learn that Neil, our narrator, holds a particular key.
Rendered in vivid colors, Neil’s past appears more lucid than the present, but his memories are also selective and likely unreliable. Through prostitution, he believes he can control his sexual experiences, and so control what was done to him as a child. If this isn’t a new way to treat childhood abuse in film, it does grant Neil a certain edge: he’s neither wholly sympathetic nor wholly disturbing, but a study in effects.
Neil’s memory becomes our memory. Although he wants to keep his recollection of Coach “pure,” his anger, frustration, and confusion become increasingly evident in his actions. Emotionally detached, he lusts after men who resemble his coach. He even has his friend Eric (Jeffrey Licon) drive by the coach’s old house. Infatuated with Neil, Eric accommodates, despite having no idea whose house it is or why it is important. Neil keeps all his friends at bay, removed from the “bottomless pit” of his heart, as his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) describes it. Neil even keeps from revealing too much to himself. He can stare at Coach’s house for only so long before having Eric drive away. But the harder he tries to remember Coach as a lover instead of molester, the closer he comes to breaking down.
Neil’s past, as well as his reaction to Coach, complicates preconceived notions of sexuality, more to the point, homosexuality. It is important to note and remember that Neil states his attraction to men before the molestation, which does not leave room for those who would argue the tired stereotype that sexual abuse is one “cause” of homosexuality. While Mysterious Skin is about the simultaneous desire for and reconstruction of truth, there are things stated and shown that cannot be ignored.
It is at first clear throughout Mysterious Skin what is true and what is fantasy. Neil’s initial recollection as he tells the audience of his frequent stops at Coach’s house, are saturated with vibrant colors and intimate shots of the young boy smiling happily at his older “mentor.” Neil’s memories have a dreamlike quality to them contrasted by the reality of his present state, a much duller landscape and less happy looking young man. There is no question that what he is telling the viewer is severely different from the truth, and it is only a matter of time before Neil needs to reconcile his past with his present. Mysterious Skin suggests why Neil does what he does, but to its credit, does not explain why he is who he is.