Let's hear it for late-blooming talent: Gregg Araki, best known for riding in on the overpuffed early-'90s wave of New Queer Cinema (The Living End) and thenceforth wallowing in a rut of empty provocations, has finally grown up. The unexpectedly powerful Mysterious Skin represents the best of possible maturations, a relaxation of his cooler-than-thou pose and, if anything, a sharpening of his gay subject matter into the more explosive realm of bitter memory and recrimination.
Based on Scott Heim's 1995 novel and bathed in a gorgeous nostalgia supplied by shoegazing bands Cocteau twins and Ride, Araki's adaptation essentially follows two Kansas teens, Neil (3rd Rock from the Sun's Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Corbet), growing up in the shadow of a partly remembered sexual encounter with a Little League coach. While the film starts off wobbly, the dual narration careering between humor and pathos, it quickly settles into a sad study of sexual ramifications, daredevil Neil tricking his way to AIDS-scary Gotham and nerdy Brian trapped in a Close Encoutners--style obsession with alien probes. Inevitably, the two threads convene in a heartbreaking finale. The movie received the MPAA's harshest rating (which Araki ultimately refused), but it would be a shame if that tag were misconstrued as more of the transgressive same from the filmmaker. Thankfully, the former enfant terrible seems to have moved on to a deeper scarring of the heart.