Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” (by Erik Syngle, with Suzanne Scott and Kristi Mitsuda, May 3, 2005)

Full of assaultive punk attitude and armed with an arsenal of hip music and film references that could be momentarily arresting yet didn’t always add up to much, Gregg Araki’s string of sensationalist low-budget New Queer Cinema features in the Nineties aren’t very fondly remembered outside of Film Studies classes — and perhaps they weren’t meant to be. Araki’s aggressive, militantly queer, often violent and violently stylized movies were an inspiration to some, and purposefully alienating to others. Then he made a warm and funny little romantic comedy about a live-in MFM threesome called “Splendor” (1999) that might have been more subversive, honest, and optimistic in its treatment of “alternative lifestyles” than his overtly political work. Was it just a fluke?

It’s taken a long time to find out the answer (and in the meantime I may have forgotten why I wanted to know), but “Mysterious Skin” proves that, contrary to any reasonable expectations, Araki has matured. Based on a 1995 novel by Scott Heim, it’s Araki’s first film to come from a source other than his own original script, which suggests that perhaps all he ever needed was someone else’s material to help give shape to his real but undisciplined talent. At the same time, it manages to incorporate most of his familiar trademarks: aliens, teenage angst, jailbait TV stars, and loads of sex. What it adds, most notably, are the twin excellent lead performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet and an authentic sense of place (Hutchinson, Kansas) as opposed to his usual shoestring L.A. “nowhere.”

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