The Unspeakable Act
Runs Fri., July 12–Thurs., July 18 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 91 minutes.
It doesn’t take long for The Unspeakable Act to go there. We’ve barely been ushered into the Kimball family unit, a normal-looking Brooklyn clan, when teenage daughter Jackie (Tallie Medel) casually introduces the subject that she elsewhere describes as “the I-word.” Jackie is troubled—distraught, actually—that her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) has his first steady girlfriend and is leaving for Princeton soon. In the plainest way possible, she tells us about how difficult is it to be in love with a member of one’s own family.
That’s right. The I-word is incest, but the idea that this taboo subject can be treated only sensationalistically is quickly dispelled by writer/director Dan Sallitt’s approach. This quiet microbudget film sails along as smoothly and easily as Jackie’s bicycle glides through Brooklyn in the opening shots.
This isn’t a story of sexual malfunction: Jackie and Matthew have never consummated anything. Now he’s beginning to grow beyond their unusual emotional closeness, and she’s not at all interested in moving on. Jackie’s spacy mother and sister exchange glances when Jackie—who doesn’t hide things well—acts out. This is a film of small looks and expressive body language: The way Jackie’s mother stirs the coffee in the French drip is a definitive index of her distracted character. A filmmaker who can capture those moments does not need reams of dialogue.
Nevertheless, the dialogue sounds authentic and is frequently funny. Some who watch The Unspeakable Act may find the acting flat or rough around the edges. That might be true, although Sallitt appears to be deliberately cultivating that informal style.
Medel, however, is a genuine original. Barely five feet tall with a watchful gaze and quick delivery, she’s not a traditional leading lady, and she doesn’t waste time trying to project the energy of an adorable indie it-girl. She is just stubbornly herself—sometimes collected, sometimes a mess, always exact.
Jackie eventually gets into therapy (Caroline Luft is dead-on as the poker-faced psychologist), but at no time does Sallitt settle for a standard coming-of-age scenario—although that scenario is actually in the movie’s DNA. Instead, The Unspeakable Act carefully hews its path, shirking melodrama and homing in on something very human. It’s a weirdly calm treatment of an anxious topic.