'Mysterious Skin' Chronicles the Aftermath of Abuse

The latest film to address child molestation is director Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin. It looks at the aftermath of abuse in the lives of two victims. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Scott Heim, and it's drawing praise from critics across the country.

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News came this week of the safe recovery of an eight-year-old Idaho girl who had been abducted and held for nearly seven weeks by a convicted sex offender. The girl's nine-year-old brother is still missing. The sexual molestation of children has been an unfortunate constant in the headlines of the past several years. It is perhaps not surprising that writers and filmmakers have taken up the subject. This year's Tony Award winner for drama went to "Doubt," a play about a nun who suspects a priest of the crime. The latest film to address molestation is "Mysterious Skin." It looks at the aftermath of such abuse in the lives of two victims. The movie is based on a novel of the same name, and it is drawing praise from critics across the country. From Los Angeles, Iris Mann reports.

IRIS MANN reporting:

The 1995 novel "Mysterious Skin" began as Scott Heim's master of fine arts thesis at Columbia University.

Mr. SCOTT HEIM ("Mysterious Skin"): There's a lot in the book that's autobiographical, but, you know, also there's a lot in the book that is just wholly from my imagination. There's two lead characters and I was kind of able to fracture my experience through them and into them. For instance, when I was very young, you know, my parents were still married, and I lived sort of kind of a typical kid in small-town Kansas life. And that kind of experience I was able to sort of put into Brian easily.

(Soundbite from "Mysterious Skin")

"BRIAN": The summer I was eight years olds how the hours disappeared from my life. Five hours lost, gone without a trace.

Mr. HEIM: And then at some point, my parents divorced and my mom sort of had a problem with alcoholism for a while and I became this kind of wild kid, and it was that experience that I could then sort of put into the Neil character.

(Soundbite from "Mysterious Skin")

NEIL: What happened that summer took a huge part of me. No one ever made me feel that way before or since. I was special.

Unidentified Woman: Neil, you were eight years old.

NEIL: Yeah, but he really loved me. I mean, there were other kids sometimes, but I was his prize.

MANN: The two teen-age boys have very different reactions to the abuse they suffered years earlier at the hands of their Little League coach. One becomes a male prostitute. The other believes he was abducted by aliens. Novelist Scott Heim says he, too, was a victim of abuse.

Mr. HEIM: But I wasn't to the extent of the characters in the story, and I certainly had friends who were and I could sort of use their experience.

MANN: It was Heim's ability to craft a story which was neither cliched nor obvious that attracted filmmaker Greg Araki to the book.

Mr. GREG ARAKI (Filmmaker): Everything is so nuanced, and all the characters, including the coach and including the johns that Neil sleeps with as a young male prostitute, they're seen as these sort of flawed human beings, but they're all given a humanity and a depth, that they're not just these black and white kind of cardboard bad boys and good guys. So for me, that makes the story all the more unsettling because it's really--it feels so real, you know, that you really get a sense of this is really what it's like, that it's not just this story about the bogeyman that comes and grabs your kids and, you know, takes them into a van and disappears. It's really that it's happening right under your nose and it's kind of almost beyond comprehension.

MANN: And that's why Araki says he had to make this movie.

Mr. ARAKI: There are statistics that say that up to one in four children suffer this kind of abuse, and it's such a--it's something that's so prevalent in the culture and so kind of all over the headlines and in the news and all--it's on, like, you know, "Law & Order: SVU"--it's, like, everywhere around us, but it's in this most superficial and kind of exploitative kind of way. And it's almost like a smoke screen. It doesn't really let you think about what this abuse is and what it does to these kids and how it, you know, damages them so deeply for the rest of their lives. That's the thing about "Mysterious Skin." It captures that moment with these children and what that moment feels like for those children.

MANN: Araki explains that he protected the young actors who play the children from knowing what really happens in the movie by filming their parts separately. He says that only through the editing did the whole story come together. What's remarkable about "Mysterious Skin," according to many of the critics who've written about it, is how much of a departure it is from Araki's earlier works. Village Voice film editor Dennis Lim says Araki's previous films have tended to be sardonic and confrontational.

Mr. DENNIS LIM (The Village Voice): There's a lot of sex and violence, and they're very in-your-face and there's a certain level of, like, unreality, you know, just in terms of the quality of the acting and the production design, and they're certainly very cartoonish films, but I think, you know, quite bold in terms of dealing with sexuality. He was part of the new core cinema movement of the early '90s and was sort of the designated bad boy of that movement.

MANN: Lim says this is Araki's most realistic and emotional film. What's more, he considers this one of the best American movies of the year so far.

Mr. LIM: It deals with pedophilia in a way that, you know, isn't really customary for an American independent film. You actually see it dealt with a lot in American indies to the extent I think it's become, you know, kind of a stunt. Films like "Happiness" by Todd Solondz, who actually made a lot of films, several films that deal with pedophilia, a film called "The Woodsman" last year and another film called "L.I.E.," which are--on some level they're based on the idea of, `Can we feel any empathy for the monster, the pedophile?' which I think is somewhat limited, and I think we've seen a lot of films do that.

And what Araki does I think really well and I think really courageously in "Mysterious Skin" is that he--instead of attempting to humanize the perpetrator, he humanizes the victim or at least he makes them more complicated than you would think. They're not--you know, at least one of the boys is certainly not what you would think of as a typical victim.

MANN: Lim adds that the film treats a sensitive subject without resorting to sensationalism or knee-jerk hysteria, and director Greg Araki hopes that "Mysterious Skin" proves more thought-provoking than what audiences are usually given on screen.

Mr. ARAKI: 99.9 percent of the movies I see I really feel like there's no point to them. I feel like, `Why did I watch this movie and why was this movie made?' and you just literally walk out of the theater and forget you even saw it. This movie, to me, I think--I mean, it's why we made it, is I really just think it's important, and I really feel it has an impact. I really feel that the story's important for people to experience and go through. I think the emotional journey that these characters are on is an important one, and that people watch the movie with an open mind and that it really has an impact on them and it stays with them and, you know, that it really lingers because I just don't want it to be one of those movies that's kind of about nothing.

MANN: Araki is particularly proud of the film's ending. There is a ray of hope for some healing, but it's not a promise.

For NPR News, this is Iris Mann in Los Angeles.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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