Directed by: Dan Sallitt.
Written by: Dan Sallitt.
Starring: Tallie Medel (Jackie Kimball), Sky Hirschkron (Matthew Kimball), Aundrea Fares (Mrs. Kimball), Kati Schwartz (Jeanne Kimball), Caroline Luft (Linda).
The title act of Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act is incest. You would think a movie that revolves around a taboo subject like that would be in danger of being exploitive – or at the very least come across as perverted. But nothing could be further from the truth about The Unspeakable Act. The brother and sister combo in the film never actually engage in incest – but there is sexual tension between the two of them – tension they both know is wrong.
The film centers on Jackie (Tallie Medel), a year younger than her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) – and the one who experiences the feelings the strongest. The pair have two older siblings – an unseen brother, already out of university and starting his life, and a mostly silent older sister, who spends of her time at home, by herself. Their father is dead – has been for years – and their mother is quiet, and unsure of what to do with herself or her kids. You get the sense that because Jackie and Matthew are so close in age that they have relied on each other their whole lives. Now he’s on the verge of going to college, while she has one year left of high school. He has gotten a girlfriend – and it makes her jealous. Her “secret” crush on her brother is no secret to him – he knows it, and exploits it. To a certain extent, he enjoys her being in love with him.
For the first half hour or so, of this barely 90 minutes movie, I had no idea where the film was going – in fact, I was starting to expect it would be one of those films that ended up going nowhere. Sallitt’s framing in precise – he favors long takes, and little if any camera movement, and with Medel’s performance starting off in a typical teen girl monotone, I was starting to think that this would be a long, slow 90 minutes.
But gradually, the movie won me over. Once Matthew departs for school, and Jackie falls into a depression, she starts going to therapy sessions with Linda (Caroline Luft). The therapy sessions are really the heart of the movie – and were refreshing for just how unlike most movie therapy sessions they were. There are no major epiphanies – no repetitive “It’s not your fault”, followed by breakdowns and tears, and phony uplift. Just quiet, thoughtful conversations – no judgment, just talk. The revelations are minor, but add up. Jackie comes out of her shell, and Medel proves that the monotone of the earlier scenes were not lack of acting ability, but a conscious choice, and Jackie uses her sarcasm as a shield – one that she gradually lets down to Linda. She starts to let down her guard in other ways as well – she starts dating, and experimenting with sex – something the movie portrays in a refreshing way – not painting it either as a wondrous, mind blowing experience, or a sign of “the kids these days going to hell in a hand basket” – but the honest, clumsy fumbling of teenagers exploring their sexual identities.
The movie will eventually reveal a few more secrets – and the final scenes of the movie take the relationship between Jackie and Matthew to its obvious conclusion (and not the same one that ended the brother-sister incest comedy/drama The Color Wheel – a more honest one than that, if less mind blowing).
The Unspeakable Act is an uncommonly subtle, honest movie about teenagers that takes subject matter that many would find unthinkable, and explores it in an honest way. I still don’t think it’s a great film – but it’s a thoughtful one, and one that didn’t take the path I expected it to.