Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Both the new This Is Where I Leave You and last week’s The Skeleton Twins are about brothers and sisters. For the next five days, we single out more films that highlight that unique relationship.
In simplest, most indelicate terms, The Unspeakable Act is about a teenage girl who wants to—in fact, believes she needs to—fuck her older brother. She says it’s not really sexual, and maybe it’s not, because the object of her desire might not be her brother, but something else. Buried in the corner of her therapist’s couch, her legs pulled up halfway to her chest, she recounts a dream in which she was attracted to a boy who wasn’t her brother. She begins to describe the stranger’s face—round, framed by dark hair that went down to his chin—before realizing that she’s describing herself. “What do you think it means?” the therapist asks. “I have no idea,” blurts out the girl, and a viewer can’t help but believe her.
The Unspeakable Act is a movie about a smart teenager—blinkered in a way that seems unique to gifted program kids—who is fixated on talking about and rationalizing a taboo, but hasn’t bothered to figure out why. The title is kind of a joke, since incest is almost the only thing Jackie (Tallie Medel) wants to talk about. But, truth be told, Jackie’s attraction to her very collegiate brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) is kind of a dodge.
Jackie hides behind projected confidence; writer-director Dan Sallitt takes every opportunity to emphasize her physical smallness (Medel seems to be a head shorter than every other actor in the film), making her assured, adult-like voice—which dominates the film—seem all the more commanding. Underneath all of her writerly narration and taboo talk, however, is a much plainer, less shocking sort of incest—the desire to be with people who remind you of yourself. Jackie treats her incestuous desires as a badge of honor, something that sets her apart from the rest of the world and its values. Deep down, though, they’re an expression of something ordinary and common to kids who, like Jackie and Matthew, have spent most of their lives in an insular household—an oversized Queen Anne-style house located in a part of Brooklyn so isolated, it resembles a suburb—governed by unspoken routines.
In many ways, The Unspeakable Act works like in an inversion of Alex Ross Perry’s screwed-up screwball comedy The Color Wheel. Both movies—which were made on comparably tiny budgets, premiered around the same time, and were championed by many of the same critics—are talky brother-sister acts informed by hardcore cinephilia, but they couldn’t be more different in terms of style and tone. The Color Wheel is handheld, jumpy, and grainy, the camera often shoved into the characters’ faces. The digitally clean Unspeakable Act is almost aggressively measured, with scenes reduced to a handful of roomy, static set-ups where even the close-ups aren’t all that close.
One could chalk it up to generational difference; about 30 years separate Perry from Sallitt. But there’s also a significant difference in worldview. The Color Wheel treats its central duo as exceptional fuck-ups, while The Unspeakable Act asks the viewer to emphasize with Jackie, because there’s really nothing extraordinary about her feelings—only the lengths to which she goes to rationalize them, overthinking her desires to the point that they become irrational. Sallitt’s target isn’t intellectualism so much as the way in which people who self-identify as “educated” can hide behind intellectualization—a theme that makes the movie’s dedication to Eric Rohmer seem all the more apt.
Availability: The Unspeakable Act is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, or to rent or purchase through iTunes.