Dan Sallitt, the film critic turned filmmaker, has taken on a very taboo subject in his fourth feature film, but made it into a deeply moving character study of a young girl coming into her own, yet who can’t escape the intimate feelings she has for her understanding yet unreceptive older brother. Yes, this film tackles incest folks, but not in the way you think (get your minds out of the gutter).
“The ‘I’ word,” to use Jackie’s (Tallie Medel) words, is never mentioned, but implied as it follows the film’s 17-year-old protagonist. Jackie herself narrates this year in a life stage of her adolescence where she bluntly addresses the various issues, albeit creepy at times, running through her teenage brain. Jackie sets the tone early on when she reveals, “One of the funny things about being in love with your brother is that you can say almost anything you want about him because no one wants to go there.” With The Unspeakable Act, Sallitt does goes there, head-on, but doesn’t at all go for cheap titillation.
This simply made independent film, filmed mostly in the Brooklyn suburbs, follows Jackie Kimball—a smart, mature, witty, insecure, typical high school senior living with her family. Her mother, who seems detached, is actually aware of most things going on with her children Jackie, Jean and Matthew, the object of Jackie’s bizarre obsession. The two share a closer than normal brother/sister relationship—he asks her “out” to a Decemberists concert to which Jackie excitedly agrees to go to, and they spend a lot of alone time in Jackie’s room smoking and talking, especially in regards to Jackie’s infatuation.
Jackie becomes deeply hurt at three points in the film; when Matthew makes an innocent attempt at humor at Jackie’s expense over her feelings, to which she begins to wails and tells him not to make fun of her for it. Then, Matthew brings over a date to meet the family whom Jackie at first appears to get along with well, but soon excuses herself just to go throw up. Lastly, when Matthew returns home from his college break he insists Jackie must end this in order for both of them to move on. Jackie’s response is to cry uncontrollable, leading her to say, “Saying goodbye to something you’ve had for a long time would make anyone cry.”
In between these critical moments Jackie details her life as she tries to live it, but is never able to completely stop thinking about Matthew. She tries to be as normal as possible, but her mother, believing she is going through issues she can’t help her with, has her see a psychologist. For the first time she tells someone else about her feelings for Matthew, whom she refers to as “The best person I know,” but it takes weeks for her to open up. She obsessively emails and waits for email responses from him, and nervously waits for him when he comes back home from school break at the subway station with a welcome home gift. Well, if that doesn’t say infatuation . . .
The unfortunate thing about The Unspeakable Act is that it won’t reach audiences beyond the movie art house-going public. This is a really emotional film that despite its topic, Sallitt makes an effort to keep this film free of any gratuitous language, using innuendo very nicely. There’s a certain innocence in Jackie and Matthew’s relationship, and her family life is explored in great depth. It’s a close familial relationship despite each member being so different in personality. Yet it’s never really implied that the feelings Jackie has develop for Matthew stem from her upbringing.
The film blames no one for her behavior, Jackie herself even has doubts if she is really “in love” with Matthew. It’s a powerful performance by Medel, who convincingly expresses Jackie’s confusions, instability, behavior and the many changes Jackie goes through in the film over the course of a year. Sallitt delivers a powerful, thought-provoking, complicated but intense film that deserves very high praise.
Take a Drink: whenever Jackie goes head to head with her psychologist.
Take a Drink: each time Jackie and Matthew are alone together to discuss “things” and then never ever do anything about it.
Do a Shot: when Jackie begs and begs and begs her mom to go with her to meet Matthew at the subway station, sounding like a little brat even though she’s supposed to be very mature for her age. It’s not suppose to be funny but yeah, it kinda is.