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DVD Review: ‘The Unspeakable Act’

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There’s an uncommon level of emotional forthrightness in Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, and the magnitude of that feat becomes even more apparent when you consider the film’s subject matter. 17-year-old Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel) is in love with her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron); he’s her whole world and the connection is much more than a strong emotional attachment in her mind.

The Unspeakable ActThere are all sorts of directions—most of them disastrously tone deaf in one way or another—a film like this could go in, but Sallitt’s intriguing, deeply felt, and completely frank study consistently subverts expectations. In many respects, the film is a dark comedy, but its humor stems from wry, Eric Rohmer-like observations of relational dynamics, not a winking awareness of its subject’s naughty perversity. And though the film recognizes and treats seriously the fraught nature of Jackie’s dilemma, Sallitt never takes the position of moralist or scold, either. The film’s tone is carefully measured, assuming a slightly detached position but also earning its big emotional moments when their time comes.

The film’s directness is mirrored by Jackie’s matter-of-factness. There’s no mystery surrounding her feelings for Matthew, either between them or between her and the audience. Her candid, sometimes playfully digressive narration and her late-night conversations with Matthew communicate the same romantic desires and physical attraction. Even her mother (Aundrea Fares) and sister (Kati Schwartz) are aware of the bond, even if they put the “blandest possible interpretation” on Jackie’s declarations, she notes ruefully.

Jackie, on the cusp of graduating high school, is keenly aware of the terminality built into her relationship with Matthew, and it’s kicked into a higher gear when he starts dating and later, moves out to go to Princeton. She begins seeing a therapist (Caroline Luft) in an attempt to sort out her feelings and forces herself to start dating someone, even as she admits she’s never really been attracted to anyone but Matthew.

Sallitt has a remarkable facility for understanding and portraying the idiosyncratic ways in which people communicate. Jackie’s earnest, unashamed proclamations of love and sexual willingness for her brother are reflected back in a pointed email she sends him and a text with a friend where she forcefully asserts the correct version of his name. “Nobody calls him Matt,” she types in just one of the film’s many small moments that reveal a little more of the emotional landscape. Sallitt’s patient, unassuming camera work paints a compelling domestic portrait, where the silences and quiet, unoccupied corners belie a world of emotional turmoil and a lifetime’s worth of significant moments nurturing a forbidden love.

Cinema Guild’s DVD release of The Unspeakable Act would be essential enough if it just contained the film, but there’s lots of added value here, thanks especially to the inclusion of Sallitt’s 2004 feature All the Ships at Sea. An incisive work about two sisters reconnecting after one is rejected from a religious cult, the film can sometimes allow its (very interesting) philosophical discussions about religion to overwhelm the character beats, but it’s quite moving nonetheless.

The disc also includes You Called Me, a 2006 short by Sky Hirschkron and excerpts from web series Everything a Monster is Not, starring Tallie Medel. A few minutes of alternate takes from the film, a theatrical trailer and other selected Cinema Guild trailers round out the disc. Also included in the package is an insert with an essay by Adrian Martin.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.