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Four years ago, the first time I saw Skyler Gisondo, I didn’t quite know what I was looking at. Was this a child? Was this a man? Was this someone somewhere in between, in some alien space that not even adolescence could explain? He seemed to be a time-straddler. Gisondo looked like a kid from the ‘50s, maybe the sentient version of Howdy Doody—all those freckles, all that sandy hair—and yet there he also was on his Instagram page with a six-pack and his girlfriend, looking every part the surfing heir to Dennis Wilson. Wait, is he attractive? Surely not sexually? Surely, he’s just provoking some kind of nostalgic tug. A maternal instinct, perhaps?

His demeanor, too, was hard to pin down. On screen—in shows like The Righteous Gemstones and Santa Clarita Diet, movies like Booksmart and Licorice Pizza—he seemed self-aware, tongue-in-cheek, like he knew he looked like an ageless, atomic-era being and that it was freaking us all out. At the same time, he could just be a confident former child star, because there’s no way a man-child like that is not a former child star (he is a former child star, he has been acting, no joke, for 20 years—no wonder he looks so old and so young at the same time). Either way, there’s something comforting about the way Skyler Gisondo’s presence, both wholesome and out of time, seems to be causing mass tickled confusion of late.

Recently, Gisondo posted a photo of himself on Instagram cradling a dog who looked as happy as anyone would be to be cradled by this snuggly enigma. His hair was wind-blown, and his parenthetical eyebrows looked sad somehow, even though there was a smile somewhere in there, even though that mouth with the oversized cupid’s bow was trying to turn up, but perhaps he was too tired from a day’s toil in the cornfields of Iowa. On Twitter, a meme was set off by a user comparing him to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” the black-and-white Dust Bowl photograph of Florence Owens Thompson surrounded by her children, which was taken in 1936 and became an enduring symbol of the Great Depression.

Another user brought out the asexuality angle, suggesting that Gisondo should be an obvious object of desire but isn’t because he is, you know, your grandfather as a kid or something.

That meme came only a month after a fairly unremarkable red-carpet photo of a smiling Gisondo—that smile which almost seems too much for his face, always on the brink of being too painful—had people imagining what he would be like as a waiter. The consensus appeared to be a preternaturally good-natured young man at a rural restaurant with corny jokes that never fail to disarm everyone (Gisondo himself was disarmed by this idea of him).

So where did this benevolent being emerge from? This perennially chaste creature with the magical name and the even more magical face? Apparently, he was born in Palm Beach to two ocean engineers, because of course he was. He later moved to Los Angeles, because of course he did. He’s Jewish and Italian American (that’s where the last name comes from, no idea about the first, which is apparently a Dutch variant on "scholar?"), but all of that pales in comparison to the fact that this is clearly a man of the water. That surfer quality is what makes Gisondo seem vigilantly dazed on screen, like he’s always slightly high but also totally with it at the same time, ready for any rogue wave that should suddenly come along.

As far as I can tell, Gisondo was born with the face he has now, as it appears now. At the very least, he has pretty much looked exactly the same since he was 14 (he’s now 27), according to my red-carpet research. He first went viral about nine years ago when he got Robin Williams and Ben Stiller to help him film a promposal on the set of one of the Night at the Museum movies. He was also a regular on Santa Clarita Diet, a show I never watched in which Drew Barrymore was a vampire or something, and he is currently on The Righteous Gemstones, which I also haven’t seen, though it seems fitting that he plays Gideon, the failed stunt driver of the family (show creator Danny McBride was won over by Gisondo’s awkward slap fight with his much younger alpha brother in the 2015 comedy Vacation).

It was Booksmart where I first noticed him. I didn’t love Olivia Wilde’s Superbad gender flip, but I thought Gisondo was the best thing about it. He played Jared, a sweet cheesy teen with the soul of a grandparent who has too much money and too few friends and spends the entire film trying to buy everyone’s affection. Gisondo, with a plastered smile on his face throughout, looks ridiculous in a comically huge chain and diamond earring and a shirt with his own face on it (a keepsake for the class that no one wants). Jared’s license plate says "Fuck Boi" even though he’s nothing of the kind (he likes airplanes and musicals). My favorite line of his is “Absofruitly, ladies,” which I am hoping he added (Wilde let the cast fiddle with their dialogue). Rewatching Booksmart, I noticed Gisondo’s speech sounds like he’s wearing braces (he used to) but I don’t know if that’s just his mouth, his accent, or some surfer-style brogue. Whatever it is, it works. When he says “I am a powerful woman”—he is reading the heroine’s valedictorian speech as her stand-in—it seems fitting. It also seems fitting when that woman gives him a huge kiss.

But it was in Licorice Pizza that I fell in love with Skyler Gisondo. He’s not in the movie long, maybe about a quarter of an hour or so. When he arrives, the main character, Gary (Cooper Hoffman), is being chaperoned to New York by the older girl he’s crushing on, Alana (Alana Haim), for an acting gig. Gisondo is one of the other “child” actors. He materializes behind a flight attendant Gary just flirted with and proceeds to flirt with Alana in kind. With his soft long ‘70s hair, baby-blue turtleneck, and navy blazer, he has never looked more like a man-child. And he’s never been smoother. “Hola, como estas? I’m Lance,” is how he breezily greets Alana, before noting, “Never flown this bird before,” as he tosses off a “Hey” to Gary, a seamless flow of age-inappropriate seduction. Lance appears again briefly at Shabbat dinner with Alana’s family where he announces, “My personal path has led me to atheism.” When an angry Alana asks him afterwards what his penis looks like (to determine if he’s circumcised), he is less shocked, more befuddled: “Like a regular ... p ... enis, I guess.” The way he punches the P though suggests, like the rest of us, that he can’t believe he even has one. He can play at sex, but real sex? Lance wouldn’t know where to start.

It’s hard to know what Gisondo is actually like off camera. He is not famous enough yet to have done that many interviews (though talks of him being the top choice for Jimmy Olsen in the next Superman suggest that won’t last long). I did however find a great detail from a recent Vulture interview which makes Gisondo seem very much like the wholesome timeless persona he has come to embody in the public imagination. It regards his first tattoo: “It’s Hebrew, it’s Gam zeh ya’avor, which means ‘This too shall pass.’ It was something I was thinking about for a long time. I thought my mom would be so sad that I got a tattoo because growing up, it was like, ‘You’ll never be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo.’ And sure enough, she loved it. God, she almost cried; she thought it was beautiful.” It is.

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