Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Greg Arraki's Mysterious Skin hovers over those bittersweet and languid teenage years- that time when life seems ruled by a complicated matrix of desire, ambition, and boredom. It's a world where the everyday comfort of mom's apple pie meets the mundane pleasures of the jaded, adolescent prostitute. Arraki's misfit teens long to escape from these small-town banalities, but even in their moments of triumph, they find themselves drawn back to the meandering joys and sorrows of their suburban upbringing.

At the heart of the film lies the troubling decade-old legacy of sexual abuse secretly inflicted on several young boys by their little league baseball coach. For sullen Neal, these events served as a sexual awakening, and he eventually finds himself working as a hustler- partially as a big "fuck you" to society, but also as a mechanism through which he attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings about the unspeakable bond he shared with his coach. Prone to nihilistic angst and random acts of self-destruction, his devil-may-care attitude nonetheless endears him to his fellow teenage outcasts, a motley crew who hopelessly lust after the affections that Neal is only able to share with older men.

Meanwhile, geeky Brian leads a sheltered life at home as he prepares for community college. His seemingly quiet demeanor hides a roiling psyche, for his dreams abound with haunting visions of the sinister moments of darkness that he has repressed from his childhood memories. After watching a television special about UFO's, he becomes convinced that he has been abducted by extraterrestrials, and he sets out in search of the truth that only Neal can help him discover.

The film's exploration of child abuse is terrifyingly powerful, and Arraki boldly chooses to present this subject without the shrill menace that dominates more traditional after-school-special approach to such issues. Instead, he coats his scenes in a glossy, almost romantic sheen, and the result feels much more true to the nightmarish fantasy world into which young Neal and Brian have been shepherded.

The film abounds with such darkly romanticized imagery, and Arraki uses these moments of to construct a mythic cycle of boredom and cruelty that fuels the American youth's Promethean yearning: a young boy is left without a ride home after his little league baseball game is cut short by a massive downpour; trick-or-treaters kidnap and torment a developmentally disabled child; two teen boys kiss in order to antagonize the grizzled truck driver sitting next to them at a stoplight. Through episodes like these, Mysterious Skin transforms suburban America's treasured icons into sinister pressures that compel the adolescent outsider to abandon his small-town roots in order to construct a more desirable identity. However, such efforts at cultural betrayal are doomed to fail, and Arraki's characters must eventually abandon their fantasies and confront the internal forces that have shaped their troubled worldviews.

At times, the film's dialogue and scenario begin to feel a little hokey, but Arraki manages to get away with it because this kind of melodrama makes sense in a world framed by teenage insecurities. The mostly age-appropriate actors are fittingly awkward, and their moments of unabashed rage and desire feel true to life. Or at least they did for me. Watching Mysterious Skin, I found myself drifting back to those pointless teenage years, that first time getting drunk, those gothy posters in the attic hangout, and that desperation to become somebody else. I can only hope I haven't been too successful.

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