Jackie (Tallie Medel), a teenage girl weighed down by her own emotions and insecurities about life, lives within an unconventional family dynamic and shares an, at times, uncomfortably close bond with her older brother, Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). While Matthew doesn’t reciprocate and happily embarks upon relationships with other woman, Jackie harbours a deep, romantic and sexual love for him. As Matthew heads off to college and their lives drift further and further apart, she’s forced to face up to facts and motivate herself to move on.
For a film that concerns itself with the controversial topic of incest, The Unspeakable Act is surprisingly restrained, with writer and director Dan Sallitt chooses to merely scratch the surface rather than presenting something explicit that would likely turn viewers off immediately. That’s not to say the film isn’t full of ambiguity surrounding the close-knit relationship Jackie and Matthew share and what they may or may not have done with one another in their younger, most impressionable and experimental years.
It’s through the frank and upfront late night conversations Jackie and Matthew share and the eventual sessions Jackie has with a therapist that we are led to understand the extent of Jackie’s lust. But, no matter how odd the situation seems, there’s nothing wrong about their relationships, it’s mostly that Jackie simply doesn’t care to look beyond her brother when it comes to sexual relations and Matthew is too nonchalant to set her right and move on altogether.
Sallitt’s direction may be slight and the action is mostly limited to the contained and comfortable, particularly for Jackie, space of the family home, where people keep their opinions to themselves and Jackie’s unconventional feelings are allowed to flourish. It’s when Sallitt breaks this cyclical pattern, whether it be by sending Matthew off to college or have Jackie attend a party, that these people are seen for the individuals they are, each one wanting to move on, but never quite surely entirely how to break free of the familiarity and warmth their relationship awards them with.
The direction is unaffected and simply observes the proceedings from an outsiders perspective, aside from during the time Jackie spends with the therapist or with Matthew, when it takes on a more introspective, assertive role. And the lack of music, something that comes as a surprise as the film opens and Sallitt comfortably lingers on the awkward, shady mood that encapsulates the house and the family, works to terrific effect in allowing the viewers to make their own assumptions as to the exact meaning of the inner mechanics.
As a performer forced to take on such challenging subject-matter with an unflinching honestly, Medel performances exceptionally well, and makes Jackie’s forwardness and disregard in conforming within what is dubbed socially acceptable all the more believable. Hirschkron plays opposite her well as Matthew, someone obviously split by their emotions. He both wants to understand her sisters feelings and remain judgement-free, but also has the ability to say no when the time comes.
In its ability to be an attitude-altering piece of filmmaking about such a contestable topic, The Unspeakable Act doesn’t quite have the determination or writer and director the knowhow to make this work. But, when it’s presented in such a deadpan, naturalistic and non-judgemental way, it’s hard to find too many faults or question either Sallitt or Medel’s willingness or aptitude in trying.