Two 18 year old boys from Kansas struggle to carry on with their lives after a traumatic experience in their childhood. They don't have anything in common, and they hardly remember each other's existence. Neil, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, is an over-confident (yet emotionally inaccessible) teenage hustler, while Brian is reclusive and extremely insecure, obsessed with the five hours that disappeared from his memory when he was 8 years old, after which he would often have night terrors and spontaneous nosebleeds.
Neil knows exactly what happened and tries to numb his pain and confusion with a reckless lifestyle. Brian's quest for answers leads him to a UFO obsession and then, finally, to Neil, who used to be in his Little League baseball team.
If I could only use one word to describe this film it would be powerful. Mysterious Skin's flawless screenplay takes on a subject as delicate as child abuse with empathy, respect, distance, honesty and fearlessness. It's emotionally draining and visceral, graphic too, but in a way that never ever feels morbid. In everything it shows it is simply being true to the facts and giving enough information for the audience to understand the graveness of what goes on. There are many awkward sexual situations but they are filmed from the character's (Neil's) POV and they are essential to the story because, after all, sex is the root of all his scars. Never does the film fall into sensationalism; in fact the content feels remarkably pure and innocent.
Neil and Brian are two of my favorite characters in film. Not only are they excellently written, both performances are truly outstanding: Joseph Gordon Levitt in particular takes on a difficult role, a character who doesn't know who he is. I was exhausted from just watching him. He portrayed a combination (or clash) of vulnerability and self-defense, adulthood and childhood, lust and longing, in an incredibly convincing way. He's done bigger films since this one but this is still one of my favorite performances. These characters are not just victims, they're completely three-dimensional humans that raise more than just compassion.
I admire Gregg Araki for telling a dark story in such a beautiful way. The cinematography and the soundtrack (mostly shoegaze -lovely) create an otherworldly mood, as if Brian and Neil had really been "abducted by aliens" and had returned with their feet still in another dimension. I found these allegories related to trauma and disconnection extremely effective. Over all, Mysterious Skin exudes wisdom. It was made with heart, consideration, and intelligence. I would say it's difficult to watch and will probably make you sick or make you cry... but I also think it's an unmissable contribution to anyone's emotional education.