Welcome to Rules of Attrachtenberg! This is a new column we’re trying at That’s Not Current in which I, you guessed it, highlight the filmography of actress Michelle Trachtenberg. While the selection might seem out-of-the-blue, the goal of this series is to explore the work of an underrated actress. We’re don’t want to repeatedly remind you how gorgeous she is—for one thing, that’s kind of immediately clear—but instead want to showcase her talent and the passion, wit and sincerity she brings to everything she does.
There are a lot of columns out there focusing on actors like Johnny Depp or Nicolas Cage or Scarlett Johansson that—as genuinely interesting as they might be—fall into a sense of sameness. But Michelle Trachtenberg has never really been pigeonholed or typecast. Her filmography spans across virtually all genres and that, I think, keeps things fresh. If you’re able to walk away from this series with a deeper appreciation for both the actress and the works she’s appeared in, then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.
Because of all of those things I just laid out, I wanted to kick off this whole thing with a film that I truly think is one of the best showcases for her acting abilities. Mysterious Skin is a dark, uncomfortable, brutally honest look at the ongoing struggle to overcome childhood trauma. There’s nothing clean-cut about this movie. Things don’t ever get resolved or wrapped-up in a tidy manner, because this is an ugly subject matter and it’s appropriately treated as such.
The film is centered around two boys who were both molested by their baseball coach at the age of eight. One (Neil, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) is haunted by the memory. It affects who he is on every level, especially his self-worth. Neil becomes a male prostitute by the age of fifteen and is unable to even comprehend doing any kind of actual legitimate work, because this is how he values himself. This memory has crippled his sense of self and created a headspace in which he can only present himself as sexual property.
Brian (Brady Corbet), on the other hand, has completely repressed the memory. He does not understand or remember exactly what happened and has come to create this fantasy narrative in which he was abducted by aliens rather than uncover the truth. The movie is fundamentally about the journey of both boys to come to terms with this awful event that set them on very different paths.
Michelle Trachtenberg plays a supporting role as Wendy, the best friend of Neil. Make no mistake about it, though, she is absolutely one of the film’s leads and her character is fascinating. Wendy is the only person Neil has ever told about what happened to him and even as a teenager, she handles being the bearer of that information with total responsibility. In the most basic terms, she takes care of Neil, but their relationship is a lot more complex than that.
First and foremost, she’s in love with him. But even though they could never actually be together, they share a love that is as deep if not deeper than anything romantic. Wendy has not gone through the same trauma that Neil has, but not only does she have her own troubled life to balance, she has to handle the weight of keeping his intensely tragic secret. And it clearly weighs on her.
The best thing, I think, that Trachtenberg does with her performance is provide these brief moments where Wendy seamlessly transitions from being so grateful and happy just to have Neil in her life to being absolutely terrified for his well being in an instant. There’s a scene where he makes her look at his bruised penis that perfectly embodies all of this. At the start of it, she’s excited just to be sneaking out with her best friend, she’s laughing, she just thinks they’re having fun. She’s grossed out and still laughing when he tries to show her, but it’s a building nervous laughter because whatever’s happening here cannot be okay. And then she looks, and her voice just goes cold and blank as she says “are those bruises?”
Wendy doesn’t just bear the weight of keeping Neil’s secret, she bears the weight of keeping him alive. That’s one of, if not the biggest overriding themes of her character. Neil does not have any regard for his own personal safety because he simply doesn’t think it’s anything worth regarding. She knows that he will do nothing to be cautious, to be careful or even to keep himself alive in general if she is not there. That’s what initially makes her move to New York so harrowing: when she first gets on that bus, she has every reason to think it might very well be the last time she sees him alive.
When he does go to New York, it’s almost worse. There, he’s in a much more violent environment where people in his line of work do die all the time. She tries to warn him, she tries to insist on him being careful, but he still gets beaten and nearly killed and Wendy has to deal with the fact that as much as she tries, there’s realistically nothing she can do to prevent things like that from happening to him, especially here. Luckily, it’s a rare positive moment with a dying client who just wants human contact that encourages Neil to step back from that world.
And it’s interesting that none of the violence or objectification turns him away, but instead a brief moment of genuine warmth and kindness. It also reveals the one core issue with Neil and Wendy’s friendship: as much as she loves and cares for him, she can only guide him so far. She can’t convince him to do anything and that terrifies her when it’s so often a matter of life and death for him.
According to Trachtenberg, she took this role when she was actively looking for things to do outside the studio system, to do for the passion instead of the money. That passion comes through in this performance as it shows off her heart, even her sense of humor, but is still at times incredibly raw. If you want to talk about range, she actually received this script while she was filming EuroTrip. Mysterious Skin is not only one of the best examples of Michelle Trachtenberg’s acting talent, it’s also one of director Gregg Araki’s best and definitely worth checking out if you’ve never seen it.