Mysterious Skin Film Review By Merle Yost, LMFT

December 08, 2012 1:43 AM | Admin EBCAMFT
This has been one of the most difficult reviews that I have ever had to write, because the subject is very close to my heart. I had to give myself some distance to really look at the film, which also speaks to its power.
I think that this is a great movie, incredibly accurate in its depiction of men who were sexually abused as children, and I encourage you to see it. I feel that it is particularly important for those men who are childhood sexual abuse survivors, and the people who love them and work with them, to see Mysterious Skin.

There is little suspense in the film; it is all well laid out. The journey is in watching the characters grow up and begin to deal with the pain and horror of their childhoods and the impact that had on their adulthood. The two central characters, both their adult selves and the boys portraying them as eight-year-olds, are great. The story is about two boys, both sexually abused by the same man, the local baseball coach. The meat of the film is about impact of the abuse on them as they grow up and the influence on their choices and their lives.

The pedophile played by Bill Sage is well represented as a caring man who pays a lot of attention to the boys. It is not violence but subtle manipulation that seduces the boys. Often the boys who are yearning for a man’s attention are the most vulnerable, and this character gives the boys something they are desperately seeking.
Our main character, Neil, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the adult and Chase Ellison as the eight-year-old, was emotionally incested by his mother, so additionally being sexualized by his coach seemed only natural to him. He saw it as one of the great experiences of his life. He romanticized it and constantly tried to recreate the experience. This is called a “repetition compulsion” and is often mislabeled as sexual addiction. The sexual experiences with the coach were the most intense pleasure that he had ever received, and at eight years of age, he had neither the emotional nor physically ability to process the sensations. It is normal and common for a male in this situation to attempt to recreate the experience, to try and work through the feelings, to no longer freeze emotionally. Unfortunately, this method rarely works.

The other main character, played by Brady Corbet as the adult and George Webster at age eight, was great. Webster, in particular, did an extraordinary job of showing the dissociation that often happens to a child being sexually abused. He literally went blank which continued into adulthood, and was unable to remember what happened, so he created a screen memory to explain the feelings that he has. As he is forced to relive the real experience, he regressed into the eight-year-old boy’s experience and begins to process in his adult body those feelings that were too much as a child. Corbet also showed the other side of sexual abuse: survivors who become sexually anorexic as a way to stay away from the experience that so traumatized them.

Is he gay, when he rejects the advances of a girl and his new best friend is a gay young adult male? Who knows? He would probably not be able to figure that out until he continues to develop psychosexually after working through the trauma of the abuse where he has been frozen in time as an eight-year-old.

There are three great scenes in the film. The first scene is where Brian (Corbet) confronts his father (Chris Mulkey) for not protecting him and missing that something awful happened to him. The second is the rape of Neil by his last trick. Males sexually abused as children are much more likely to be raped as adults. The third scene is the last 9 minutes of the film where the characters unite to reclaim their memories and feelings about what had happen to them. The emotion ripped across the screen, and we felt their pain. That is great filmmaking and acting.
I feel like I am writing a paper on sexual abuse and attending this film for me was like watching parts of my own life as well as my work. I am a psychotherapist who is both a sexual abuse survivor and a specialist in the treatment of men who were sexually abused as adults and or as children.

The performances were uniformly good and the direction was right on. It is the first Gregg Araki film that I enjoyed. It is his first mainstream film and is certainly deserving of all the attention and praise that it is getting. The women who played Neil’s and Brian’s mothers gave dead on performances. Elisabeth Shue as the incestuous mother was real in showing her caring, boundary-crossing, inappropriate behavior. Lisa Long was so funny as the Martha Stewart of backwoods Kansas, I would laugh every time she came on the scene. Her protectiveness was evident, and we loved her for it.

My only real complaint is that I did not feel much emotion from the film. It is very detached and intellectual. You see horrible things but you never get the emotional kick except in the three scenes that I mentioned above. If the point was to see it from the emotional perspective of the two lead characters, it succeeded brilliantly. If Spielberg had directed this it would have been so over the top in feelings that I suspect it would have been unwatchable. I have to compare it to the play from the same material and to the best movie on sexual abuse of boys that I have ever seen, The Boys of St. Vincent. Both of these other vehicles showed both the horror of the abuse as well as hit-you-below-the-belt emotions.

I highly recommend the film. I hope that theatre companies everywhere produce the Mysterious Skin play. This message about the abuse of boys must be told over and over if we are to save another generation from this life sentence of pain. The film is great and honest material.   When I do my workshop, Shedding Light on the Sexual Abuse of Boys and the Men They Become, I strongly encourage participants to watch the film before the workshop.
It is particularly important for therapists to see this film. It will help them see in very graphic terms the abuse and impact on males and how it can look different than with females. Just getting a male to admit that he was abused is generally the first step and this film will help many in taking the first steps toward healing. It will also give the therapist and client a point of reference outside of the clients experience that can may it easier to examine what abuse looks like and how it compares to their own.

The movie Mysterious Skin is based on the novel of the same name by Scott Heim.  

Merle Yost is a 1991 graduate of the JFK Transpersonal Program. His has had a practice in Oakland for close to 20 years. He is graduate of the SF Gestalt Institute, an Approved EMDR Consultant and a specialist in PTSD and traumatic childhoods.

As a Military Family Life Consultant he spent 30 days in Germany working with solders and their families.

Merle has published 5 books, and is a leading authority on men with gynecomastia and expert on working with men that were sexually abused as children.

He has been a supervisor for many years at the Pacific Center in Berkeley.

Official Site:
A film by Gregg Araki, Director, Writer and Producer
NC17, Starring Brady Corbet, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeff Licon, Bill Sage, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Elisabeth Shue
Film still taken from 

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