Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s the start of Pride Month, so we’re looking back at some major or influential highlights of queer cinema.
Not all members of a cinematic vanguard make a single, definitive statement. Writer-director Gregg Araki was a part of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early ’90s, building his reputation on distinctive low-budget comedies like The Living End and Totally Fucked Up; he found an appreciative audience but never quite produced a galvanizing breakthrough. What he did instead was stick around—and in a lot of ways, improve as a filmmaker. His 2004 adaptation of the novel Mysterious Skin was a decade removed from New Queer Cinema, and isn’t exactly a milestone in terms of its content or popularity. It is, however, a tender career highlight from a major queer filmmaker.
Mysterious Skin tells two stories that begin with the same 1981 Little League team, alternating between young players Neil (Chase Ellison) and Brian (George Webster). Brian (played as a young man by Brady Corbet) recounts an unexplained blackout he experienced as a child, leading to a lifetime of chronic nosebleeds and UFO obsession, while Neil (played as a young man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) directly describes the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of their baseball coach (and how much he enjoyed the attention). The connection between their respective childhoods is obvious—though for the audience more than the characters, who don’t share many scenes. Brian spends most of the movie on a fruitless investigation into his alien-fixated nightmares, while Neil becomes a teenage hustler who mainly services older men. Eventually, these parallel lines waver and veer toward an intersection. The movie is really about how two different people process their traumas.
Araki’s earlier films possessed a frankness that this material puts to productive use. When Araki keeps the camera in close-up on Neil’s face during a sexual encounter, he’s not being coy. To the contrary, the scene feels explicit without any graphic nudity, a description that applies to a lot of the film, including sensitively depicted but still unsparing scenes of child abuse. It’s the rare movie where maybe the MPAA had a point in bringing out the dreaded NC-17. (Ultimately, the film went out to theaters unrated.)
Yet while this is probably Araki’s most serious and harrowing work so far, it’s not a case of a formerly mischievous filmmaker taking a wallow through a swamp of misery. The movie turns on his ability to find odd whimsy in darkness, and vice versa. Some of its most indelible moments are disarming in their earnestness: Neil and his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) hearing the “voice of God” on a dead drive-in theater speaker during a snowfall; Neil showing affection to his sometimes neglectful but goodhearted mother (Elisabeth Shue); a heartbreaking scene where an older man with AIDS pays Neil for a back massage.
Neither of those scenes involve Brian, whose storyline feels a touch more remote, even though Neil is the one who’s described as having a “bottomless black hole” where his heart should be. Neil’s greater magnetism may be an intentional imbalance reflecting their vastly different coping techniques—or one created by the acting. It’s not that Brady Corbet gives a deficient performance so much as Joseph Gordon-Levitt—low-voiced and heavy-lidded but physically restless—gives an especially powerful one. (It’s doubly impressive when paired with his decidedly different shade of teenage alienation in Brick.) His performance and Araki’s filmmaking share an openness, almost too direct for the melodrama lurking around every corner. Mysterious Skin’s conclusion may feel inevitable, but the emotions it evokes never do.