Mysterious Skin


Directed by: Gregg Araki
Written by:Gregg Araki
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill Sage
Released: August 18, 2005
Grade: A

Mysterious Skin was one of the most talked about films of this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF).  Set to be released nationwide on August 18, Attorney General Philip Ruddock appealed the R-rating given to it by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC).  After receiving complaints from the Australian Family Association (AFA), Ruddock wanted the film banned.

The outcry sounds all too familiar.  Last year, Ken Park was banned in Australia as, in the words of the OFLC, it “offended the standards of morality, decency and proprietary generally accepted by reasonable adults”.  This was despite New Zealand’s classification calling it “an insightful presentation of the societal and family pressures on teenagers”.

Two days after I saw the film at BIFF, the decision came down from the OFLC.  By a margin of 4 votes to 2, the film kept it’s R-rating and thankfully, will now be seen here in Australia.  David Stratton of ABC’s At The Movies was making a presentation at BIFF when fellow critic Margaret Pomeranz called in with news of the decision.  I wasn’t there at the time but I wish I could have been to see an excited David inform the audience.

As much as I will rave about this film, it will shock many people.  Child abuse can be a difficult subject matter and I’ll understand if people don’t want to see it.  It’s kind of surprising though that such a film hasn’t been made before given that the issue has become so prevalent in the media in recent years.

Mysterious Skin is the story of two 18-year-old boys who were sexually abused by their baseball coach when just 8 years of age.  Neil (Gordon-Levitt) has become a gay hustler who has seemingly slept with every guy in town.  He’s proud of the fact that he’s gay and doesn’t care what people think of his lifestyle.  Brian (Corbet), on the other hand, has suppressed all knowledge of his abuse.  He suffers from blackouts and nose-bleeds but doesn’t know why.  An interview with a local girl on a television show has him theorising that he was once abducted by aliens.

What distinguishes the film is writer/director Gregg Araki’s ability to find something uplifting amongst the depressing gloom.  Neil and Brian’s lives have been scarred forever but the film’s focus is not on the abuse itself.  Rather, it’s the way in which each of them tries to come to terms with the experience and move forward.  There’s a lot of heartache but a few laughs to keep a nice balance.

The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Third Rock From The Sun) and Brady Corbet (Thirteen) in what is a great chance to establish themselves in the film world.  It’s difficult for any young actor to break away from the teen mould but their two performances in Mysterious Skin have demonstrated talent and commitment.  They subtly give their characters intrigue and complexity.  The emotional finale they share left an awed hush at my screening as the credits started to roll.

Validation of my own opinion of the film came at the closing night of BIFF when the audience voting cards were tallied and the film was ranked as the third favourite movie of the festival.  Now that the censorship debate is behind us, the rest of Australia now has the opportunity to confront a film that tells a compelling story and has something meaningful to say.  How many other films this year can you say that about?