Patrick Gamble

EIFF 2012: ‘The Unspeakable Act’ review

★★★★☆

Directed by former Los Angeles Reader film critic Dan Sallitt, The Unspeakable Act (2012) takes one of the few remaining social taboos in the western world and presents it in an earnest and incredibly charming way. Dealing with the controversial theme of incest within a close knit, yet strangely detached family dynamic, Sallitt’s film relies far more on the strength of its character development than it does on gaudy sensationalism to push home his message.

Intelligent 17-year-old New Yorker Jackie (Tallie Medel) has long held a fondness for her brother Matthew, believing that they have an unspoken agreement that they belong to one another. However, when he brings home a girlfriend, Jackie struggles to deal with her deep rooted heartbreak, leading her to examine just why she’s so besotted with and emotionally dependent on her brother, asking herself what, if anything is actually wrong with this contentious attraction.

Sallitt’s use of static camera shots helps the audience deconstruct for themselves this peculiar portrait of a unconventional household. Jackie’s desire to retreat into her immature, stunted relationship with her brother raises numerous questions and a strange fascination with her motives. Much of her reasons seem foreign, yet Sallitt assists the viewer by filming the psychiatric sessions Jackie undertakes, giving us the opportunity to hear someone ask the questions we as an audience are desperate to address.

Jackie’s narration, which intersperses the film sporadically, adds an interesting slant to proceedings. Her character shares similarities with Diablo Cody’s Juno, whilst Medel’s presentation of this insular teenager is also reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s recent, incredibly introspective work. Successfully immersing us into Jackie’s curious attitude towards romance and family, Sallitt allows us to detach ourselves from the stigmas of society and study this tale of incest in almost an entirely clinical way.

The film closes with a dedication to Eric Rohmer – just in case anyone hadn’t noticed the French auteur’s influence on the film. Like Rohmer, whose work often concentrated on intelligent, articulate protagonists who had a tendency to hide their inner desires, Sallitt has created a remarkable honest portrait of adolescent romantic confusion using incest as a unique and intriguing selling point. Traversing the assumed sensationalism behind its subject matter, The Unspeakable Act is an intimate, yet thoroughly enjoyable film with a far more universal them of sexual confusion and teenage angst than its eye-catching synopsis suggests.

Many will find Sallitt’s detached perspective difficult to enjoy (especially the character of Matthew who has as much life and vivacity about him as sloth) however, fans of naturalistic and intelligent American independent cinema will find The Unspeakable Act an absolute delight.

The 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 20 June-1 July, 2012. For more of our EIFF 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.  

Patrick Gamble

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