Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act is a film about incest that's distinguished by two qualities one doesn't normally associate with films about incest — it is somehow both gentle and matter-of-fact. At the center of Sallitt's tale is an articulate and headstrong high-schooler, Jackie (Tallie Medel), who's desperately in love with her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). Jackie's longing for Matthew is unrequited, but acknowledged — the two are very much aware of the situation, and don't shy away from discussing it when they're alone together.
We sense that nothing has ever really happened between them. Rather, the attraction is more a state of being, a fact of life for two individuals who circle around each other in an atmosphere of co-dependence and awkward intimacy. She cuts his hair, they sneak off to smoke together; they have conversations that hover between confessional and low-key confrontation.
But things are changing. Matthew is eagerly moving into the world of adulthood — going to college, having grown-up conversations with girlfriends, wearing blazers to outdoor rock concerts. Jackie, meanwhile, is still mired in the emotional swamp of adolescence and figuring out just who she wants to be. That's really just another way of saying that the film, in the end, isn't really about incest but about the confusion of that bewildering period right before adulthood. Matthew is on his way, and Jackie will soon be, too: Her attachment to him is, in a sense, an acknowledgement that she's not quite ready to leave, not quite ready to carve out an identity for herself.
All that sounds messy and intellectualized, but the film is surprisingly smooth, with placid surfaces whose light and colors shift subtly as the story proceeds. Sallitt, an esteemed film critic and below-the-radar filmmaker whose exacting aesthetic avoids the fashionable DIY pitfalls of faux-grit or mumble-friendly cool, is drawn to directors like Eric Rohmer, to whom this is dedicated, or Maurice Pialat. (Full disclosure: The director is a friend of mine, as is the male lead; in the world of no-budget filmmakers and the critics who review them, there are only ever just one or two degrees of separation.)
The true revelation of the film is young actress Medel, who has to run a startling range of emotions and attitudes here — from bewildered, to judgmental, to desperate, to haughty, to indignant, to disaffected. And she has to do it all within the framework of Sallitt's somber, restrained aesthetic, which doesn't allow for big emotional outbursts or elaborate catharses. The result is an extraordinary high-wire act for both actress and director. Other performers don't quite make as much of an impact, though they don't need to. As Jackie's forbidden object of desire, Hirschkron mostly maintains an air of awkward detachment. His hesitancy, his stiffness, feels intentional: It works as a foil for Medel's emotional seesawing. That said, after a while, it can also start to feel a little one-note.
The other performances have a similar tendency to feel unchanging, but that too feels like a part of the film's grand design. Jackie's mom, for example, played by Aundrea Fares, has a haunted, emotionally catatonic quality, which feels at first like a misstep; it makes sense later on when Jackie informs us that mom was once an addict. Again, the repetition seems right: This is, after all, a film seen through a young girl's eyes, and her home, as she reminds us late in the film, is her country, a place of routine and constancy.
Sallitt shows us his hand quite elegantly with the one adult Jackie does eventually develop a real relationship with: a psychiatrist who starts off as a dry, easily dismissible voice of reason and gradually becomes genuinely involved in Jackie's life choices. In a way, the psychiatrist's journey mirrors the audience's: We start out watching this interesting, fascinating specimen with interest and trepidation. By the end, though, we find ourselves curiously invested in her emotional inner life.