It should disturb us a little extra that the two boys at the center of Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin are by now archetypes in the literature of the gay Bildungsroman: They're any combination of sad, lonely, isolated, detached, repressed, promiscuous, careless, and victims of abuse at the hands of older men.
The fact that one of them brings his own nascent carnal desire to his pre-adolescent sexual abuse is the more intriguing story here, and Araki (The Living End), adapting a novel by Scott Heim, tells it on the periphery. But most of what we witness in Mysterious Skin is an elegy to a world where gay teen-agers have to construct fabulist metaphors for their difference, or else simply live behind a sullen force field that doesn't protect them from the most dangerous things.
One of the boys in Mysterious Skin is Brian (Brady Corbet), an 8-year-old flop on his first day of Little League, which his father compelled him to play, and which his mother suspected was unsafe. Brian comes home with a bloody nose that initiates a 10-year plague of nosebleeds, bed-wettings and blackouts. And on the night of his humiliation, he sees a spaceship in his backyard, which convinces him that he's been abducted by aliens.
The other boy is Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose eighth year is also important: He has his first orgasm whacking off as he watches his mother (Elisabeth Shue) service her current big dumb boyfriend, the kind of man who becomes Neil's "type" when, by age 15, he's a hustler. Neil knows his sexual destiny. He wants his coach (Bill Sage) on the first day of Little League, and soon he becomes the coach's favorite among all the boys.
Araki films the molestation scenes in a way that seems to protect his child actors: You never actually see the coach's face and a child's face in the same shot when the coach does something bad to the child, like putting his head on the boy's belly, or performing oral sex, or requiring a boy to put his little arm into his rectum up to the elbow. (Are you getting the idea of what to expect if you choose to see Mysterious Skin?) This technique is interesting, although perhaps cold comfort if you wonder how parents and artists explain films like this to the children who appear in them.
Mysterious Skin takes place in small-town Kansas, which doesn't have much significance (by which I mean that it could happen anywhere). But the fact that the boys are 8 in 1981, and 18 in 1991, sets the story at a time when children like them understood less about their situations and had fewer places to turn for good advice. The drama brings the boys together in the end, and its metaphors glide along at first and then begin to sputter a bit, like in a Gus Van Sant movie. My Own Private Idaho naturally comes to mind, although Araki is far more tangible that Van Sant will ever care to be.
You won't find any positive gay role models in Mysterious Skin, which is about as perfect a film as anyone could hand to the religious wrong to preach against on Sunday morning. And so we have to bring our own positive understanding to what we see -- which we can, fortunately, because we've seen this drama's various elements before. We understand, without any insinuation, the reason for Brian's alien abduction, which makes him feel like a stranger inside his own skin.
What emerges from all this is a cool, leisurely, episodic and occasionally moving character study of Neil, a gay teen-ager who doesn't have anyone to guide him through his sexual maturation, and who makes many bad choices because of that absence, and to a lesser extent, of Brian, whose sexual desire is never perfectly clear to us (we do get intimations), and whose situation leads to an ending that's at once vaguely made-for-TV and yet probably just right.