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Originally published Friday, June 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

A predatory coach, his victims and their lives

Sex and love are tragically separate throughout most of "Mysterious Skin," Gregg Araki's uncompromising tale of a predatory Little League...

Special to The Seattle Times

Sex and love are tragically separate throughout most of "Mysterious Skin," Gregg Araki's uncompromising tale of a predatory Little League coach and his victims. Devastatingly sad but ultimately quite moving, it's the most accomplished work to date from the writer-director of "The Living End" and "The Doom Generation."

Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Araki's script covers several years in the lives of Brian Lackey, a nerdy child who doesn't last long as a baseball player, and Neil McCormick, a natural athlete who knows, at an early age, that his interests are not heterosexual. Growing up in Kansas in the 1980s-1990s, the boys have wildly different reactions to a hunky coach (Bill Sage) who takes advantage of their need for a father figure.

The fatherless Neil feels privileged to spend entire days hanging out with the coach, playing video games as well as allowing more intimate contact. Brian, whose icy father considers him a "quitter," isn't sexually attracted to the coach, but he can't say no when he appears to offer paternal friendship.

Movie review 4 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Mysterious Skin," with Brady Corbet, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bill Sage, Elisabeth Shue. Written and directed by Gregg Araki, based on a novel by Scott Heim. 99 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (includes sex scenes, partial nudity, profanity). Harvard Exit.

After their relationships with the coach end, Neil grows up to become a heartless hustler, acting out his feelings of betrayal on a series of older men. The confused and asexual Brian finds himself entertaining UFO theories to explain what happened. Could Brian have been abducted by extraterrestrials? If so, then why does his drawing of an alien feature baseball cleats?

Brian is played as a child by George Webster and as a teenager by Brady Corbet. The 8-year-old Neil (Chase Ellison) grows up to become Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's made a remarkably smooth transition from television's "Third Rock From the Sun" to such independent productions as "Latter Days" and this film.

All four actors skillfully hint at the gradual changes in the boys' behavior, while Araki handles the cause of their distress with surprising discretion. Corbet and Gordon-Levitt are often astonishingly fine, especially as Brian and Neil find themselves drawn together to reconstruct their pasts. Also first-rate are Elisabeth Shue as Neil's promiscuous mother, Michelle Trachtenberg as his best friend and Jeff Licon as Brian's gay pal.

Of all the recent films about child abuse, "Mysterious Skin" stands out as the one that most directly and eloquently addresses the emotional toll of the experience. The mixture of tenderness and toughness — in the performances as well as in the more poetic visual and musical flourishes — is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho."

John Hartl:

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