Though only two major roles removed from his stint on the dire NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt already seems like something special, a remarkably engaged and daring performer who appears willing for anything. In both the underseen Manic and Gregg Araki's uncharacteristically tender coming-of-age drama Mysterious Skin, Gordon-Levitt plays damaged goods, a bruised loner whose boyish yet hardened features suggest that he's been forced to grow up too soon. Much of Araki's filmography, including such extreme works as The Doom Generation and Nowhere, deals with the cruelties of youth, those formative incidents of sexuality and/or violence that permanently scar an impressionable teenager. The sad trajectory of Gordon-Levitt's character in Mysterious Skin may be the most powerful material in Araki's career, handled with a maturity and lyricism that's a long way from his crudely provocative early films.
Yet Mysterious Skin is only half a great movie, because the other half follows a separate but related thread that isn't nearly as compelling. Opening in small-town Kansas in the early '80s, the film concerns two 8-year-old Little Leaguers whose fateful summers determine the course of their lives: One, later played as a teenager by Brady Corbet, experiences puzzling blackout spells and nosebleeds that he attributes to alien abduction, while the other, later played by Gordon-Levitt, gets deflowered by their mustachioed coach (Bill Sage). Haunted into his late teens by visions of UFOs and extraterrestrials, Corbet initially seeks out a fellow abductee (Mary Lynn Rajskub) for guidance, but he soon becomes convinced that Gordon-Levitt is the key to unlocking his past. Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt has grown into the reckless life of a teenage hustler, first picking up locals at the park, then joining best friend Michelle Trachtenberg in New York City, where the specter of AIDS and volatile johns are a constant threat.
Building on the lush style that he's developed over his last few films, Araki integrates the two stories beautifully, with one rhyming in perfect time with the other until they finally converge in a powerful finale. And yet Gordon-Levitt's thread resonates much more strongly, perhaps because his traumas are grounded in some tangible reality instead of the ethereal strangeness of Corbet's alien encounters. The way in which Gordon-Levitt's terrible childhood intimacies permanently imprint his identity makes him a tragic figure, and the wounds of it read with devastating clarity on his face and in his body language. Perhaps the consequence of a performance this mesmerizing is that everything else in the movie seems like a distraction.