We've barely been ushered into the family unit of the Kimballs, a normal-looking Brooklyn clan, when teenage daughter Jackie (Tallie Medel) casually introduces the subject that she elsewhere describes as "the I-word."
Jackie is troubled -- distraught, actually -- that her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) has his first steady girlfriend, and that he is leaving for Princeton soon. In the plainest way possible, she tells us about how difficult is it to be in love with a member of one's own family.
That's right. The I-word is incest, but the idea that this taboo subject can only be treated in sensationalistic terms is quickly dispelled in writer-director Dan Sallitt's approach to the theme. This quiet, micro-budget film sails along as smoothly and easily as Jackie's bicycle gliding through Brooklyn in the opening shots.
This isn't a story of sexual malfunction; Jackie and Matthew have never consummated anything. Now he's beginning to grow beyond their unusual emotional closeness and she's not at all interested in moving on.
Jackie's spacey mother and sister exchange glances when Jackie (who doesn't hide things too well) is acting out. This is a film of small looks and expressive body language: The way Jackie's mother stirs the coffee in the French drip is a definitive index of her distracted character. A filmmaker does not need reams of dialogue when he can capture those moments.
Nevertheless, the dialogue sounds authentic and is frequently funny. Some will watch "The Unspeakable Act" and find the acting flat, or rough around the edges. That might be true, although Sallitt appears to be deliberately cultivating that informal style.
Medel, however, is a genuine original. Barely five feet tall, with a watchful gaze and a quick delivery, Medel is not a traditional leading lady, and she doesn't waste time trying to project the energy of an adorable indie girl. She is just stubbornly herself, sometimes collected, sometimes a mess, always exact.
Jackie eventually gets into therapy (Caroline Luft is dead-on as the poker-faced psychologist), but at no time does Sallitt settle for a standard coming of age scenario, although that scenario is actually in the DNA of the movie.
Instead, "The Unspeakable Act" carefully hews its path, shirking melodrama and homing in on something very human. It's a weirdly calm treatment of an anxious topic.
"The Unspeakable Act" (three and a half stars)
A taboo subject -- incestuous feelings between teenage sister and brother -- is given a nonsensationalistic treatment in this insightful film. Director Dan Sallitt and his offbeat leading lady (Tallie Medel, a genuine original) walk a careful line that culminates in a real sort of wisdom by the fade-out.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for language, subject matter.
Showing: Northwest Film Forum.
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