A voiceover opens Mysterious Skin: "The summer I was 8 years old, five hours disappeared from my life," as a bespeckled blond boy in Little League garb stares blankly with bloody nose. He continues to have frequent nightmares and bloody noses while obsessing on those missing hours before concluding that it just may have been due to an alien abduction. Yet viewers immediately are let in on a far darker secret destined to haunt young Brian (George Webster, playing the 8 year old) until he's ready to confront the trauma.
And it's wise that director Gregg Araki eases the audience into the narrative since pedophilia is subject matter destined to creep out over 99% of the audience and make them want to get abducted by aliens themselves and forget the horror explored during the film's 99 minute running time. While Todd Soldanz's Happiness explores this world as one subplot among many and uncovers remarkable empathy for the perpetrator, Araki delves into the effects the experience has on two connected victims who handle it in divergent ways.
Brian's five hour amnesia drives the boy into a neurotic shell; he remains a shy geeky teenager (played by Brady Corbet) convinced that he is different and that he likely was abducted by aliens. After seeing a TV show about a girl in a nearby Kansas town who is also convinced she was abducted, he contacts her in hopes of uncovering his past. Instead, he gains a stalker—an unwanted one; Brian is described as "asexual" since he seems to have an aversion to sex.
Not so with his parallel partner (and primary protagonist) Neil, who similarly grows up with an absent father. Even as an 8 year old, Neil (Chase Ellison) has homosexual leanings—immediately drawn to his handsome mustachioed Little League coach (Bill Sage) and desiring to impress him with his athletic prowess. Soon the coach assumes a father figure role in Neil's life, although it's readily apparent that the movie nights, video games, and stock of mini boxes of Kellogg's cereals serve as seduction tools. Although the coach moves on, Neil obsesses about him throughout adolescence (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—turning tricks for all the older men who frequent the local park. The only real connection in his life is soul-mate Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), who accepts his sexuality, listens to his dark secrets, and recognizes that he has a "black hole" where his heart should be.
Even though the film concentrates on Neil's character, with suggestive but not graphical depictions of his sexual exploits that move from routine and occasionally comical Hutchinson, Kansas encounters to far more dangerous tricks in New York City (the most harrowing borrowing heavily from Hitchcock's Psycho), the payoff comes with the inevitable connection between Neil and Brian. Although Neil's unrepressed recollection is shocking, the scene remains remarkably touching—making this difficult film among the most revealing and heartfelt treatments of childhood sexual abuse.
It's not a perfect film nor surprising, given the abundance of popular literature on psycho-sexual development and behavior, but given the earnestness of the young actors' performances and the director's courage and deft touch, Mysterious Skin remains a provocative and worthy rental that can prove therapeutic to other people who may think they have always been different or were once abducted by aliens. The film treads harrowing ground without falling into the pit of cliché or becoming so simplistic that the audience is seduced into thinking that a single revelation can solve the problem.