Some day, director Gregg Araki will hop off the edgy/indie bandwagon he helped to invent. Yeah, and pigs will fly on that same day. Araki pushes down hard on the hot button of pedophilia in this story of two young men, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbett), who were both abused as boys. Neil has become a teenage hustler with, according to his best, platonic gal pal Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), a black hole for a heart. Brian is a nerd who lives with Mom and is besotted by UFOs and space aliens. Separated since childhood, the two go through heaven and hell before they are reunited and the mystery of their strange bond is cleared up.
Even with the numb dialogue and trite characterizations we've come to expect from Araki, Mysterious Skin (adapted from the novel by Scott Heim) might have worked with the right actor in the charismatic role of Neil. But the director has cast Gordon-Levitt, who looks too old for the part to begin with and invests his thudding lines with a self-consciously laconic delivery, which is meant to be cool but just comes off as borderline-inept. (Perhaps this was the only way the actor, a veteran of "Third Rock from the Sun," could deal with the writing, but it's still a bad choice.) The performance is so strangely off-putting that you don't care when Neil is brutally roughed up by one of his johns or made to massage the lesion-pocked body of an AIDS victim, two devastating points on his road to eventual-yawn-self-clarification.
Corbett is much better, and quietly winning as asexual Brian, who has an unfortunate encounter with another extraterrestrially obsessed geek, a pathetic, lustful woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24") who happens to be handicapped as well. (Ah, the suave touch of Araki!) Elisabeth Shue plays Neil's dippy cliché of a mother (and must be wondering what's happened to her career, post-Leaving Las Vegas). The appealing Trachtenberg is wasted.
As for the kid-sex scenes-at once queasy and clumsy in their staging-one can't help wondering how the parents of the child actors involved were talked into allowing them to happen. But maybe this is now a truly different world we live in, where the merest hope of a swag-filled, starry chance at the Sundance Festival takes precedence over everything. What psychological scarring? It's a gig, kid!