Paedophilia, male rape and mind-numbing sexual abuse - - hey, it's just another day at the office for Gregg Araki, a key member of the US-led gay movie scene of the early '90s. There are parts of Mysterious Skin that will make you wince, but as a fearless chronicler of hedonistic nihilism (1992's The Living End, about an HIV positive couple on a crime spree) and whacked out youth (1995's The Doom Generation), Araki was never going to gloss over the dark side of human nature in filming Scott Heim's bleak, brutal novel.
Despite its unsavoury topics, though, Skin is a rewarding revelation: it's easily the most accomplished movie Araki has made. Gone is the amateur-hour storytelling, shonky acting and patience-grating weirdness that plagued his early work, replaced instead by someone sure of their craft. From the lush, dreamlike aesthetics to the polished script, it's like Araki was sent off to film finishing-school and emerged a disciplined storyteller.
Where he really shows off his new maturity is in the compelling performances of his two leads. In particular, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the lil' tyke from 3rd Rock From The Sun, is an eye-opener, breathing crude, cocky, charismatic life into Neil and never losing your sympathy despite having, as his own best friend says, a "bottomless black hole where his heart should be". Brady Corbet is equally impressive as Brian (a stunning improvement on his turn in blockbusting turd Thunderbirds), conveying the life-dimming confusion of a lost boy haunted by five hours that went missing from his life in 1981.
Both inhabit tricky roles with admirable authenticity and even manage to occasionally lighten the mood. But this is agonising stuff, and no matter how sensitively Araki leads us there, it's all heading towards a devastating climax that'll leave you both unnerved and moved. And wondering how he got such astonishing performances out of the actors playing Brian and Neil aged eight - - hope they didn't read the script.
Not for the squeamish (or Oprah fans), this daring film refuses to flinch from its difficult subject matter or offer trite, easy answers.