The Unspeakable Act


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Unspeakable Act
"Sallitt brings an unusually stringent intellectual level to proceedings that marks his film out from the largely immature field of its peers."

Dan Sallitt's film may, at first glance, look like the latest in a long line of US indie coming of age dramas, with the underlying theme of sibling incest - the "unspeakable act" - suggesting an attempt at shock value. In fact, critic-turned-filmmaker Sallitt brings an unusually stringent intellectual level to proceedings that marks his film out from the largely immature field of its peers.

Seventeen-year-old Jackie (Tallie Medel) is our constant companion, sharing virtually every detail of her life via voiceover. Whether the events she documents are happening as she experiences them is open for debate, as sometimes she seems to be recalling the past, at others to be narrating the present - but this only adds to the dislocating atmosphere that pervades the film.

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Living in a beautiful Brooklyn pile, with her distant mum (Aundrea Fares) and a sister (Kati Schwarz) who barely registers on her radar, Jackie's wide-eyed, innocent demeanour is at odds with her innermost thoughts regarding her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). Not that she's keeping her views to herself, as Matthew has long been aware of her crush on him.

If Jackie's character is interesting because of her precocious openness regarding her feelings, Matthew's is intriguing in his ambiguity. Although not actively encouraging Jackie's lust, he doesn't seem to be doing a whole lot to stymie it either, happy to share illicit night-time cigarettes and conversation and almost unsettling in his acceptance, if not reciprocation, of her 'come ons' as just another aspect of her personality.

Jackie's finely balanced, if rather odd, comfort zone is rocked by Matthew's departure for college, as she is forced to more clinically confront - both on her own and on the psychiatrist's couch - her feelings. Despite the unspeakable act in the title, this is a restrained chamber piece, that is more interested in the shadowy unspoken emotions that rattle round families than the actual deed itself.

Interestingly, Sallitt's film is also, unlike many coming of age films, less about the central character undergoing a sweeping change and more about her achieving a greater understanding of who she is. In Jackie's case there comes a moment of self-realisation when she declares: "I'm so fucked up!" but there is also a sense of life continuing. She may be becoming more self-aware and making attempts to accommodate the expectations of the world at large but that doesn't mean she has suddenly undergone a transformation of mindset.

Jackie is warmly realised by newcomer Medel - from whom, more, please - and Sallitt has a good line in barbed wit, whether capturing the intricacies and absurdities of losing your virginity in someone's car or caustically examining Jackie's thoughts on the world. Sallitt's film may prove too intellectually austere for some and the narrative does occasionally threaten to overwhelm the more delicate emotions on display, but for those willing to engage with his bracing arguments, there's plenty to consider in the final analysis.

Reviewed on: 10 Jul 2012
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The Unspeakable Act packshot
Adolescent anxiety inspires a "love that dare not speak its name" in Dan Sallitt's frank and patient family drama.
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EIFF 2012

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