After reading the film’s synopsis— “17-year-old Jackie is in distress as her older brother Matthew gets his first girlfriend and prepares for college. Though Matthew does not share her incestuous desire, Jackie resists the intrusion of reality on her idyllic childhood world.”—The Unspeakable Act sounds like your typical, American-indie filled with moments of pseudo-psychology, overly clever dialogue, and exaggerated self-importance. But it is one of the most assured and insightful films of 2013 – and one of the least-seen. Despite a glowing review from Film Comment’s Jonathan Robbins and a spot on Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s ‘best of’ list, the film has yet to gain the type of recognition it deserves. Written, directed, and edited by film critic Dan Sallitt, and featuring a dedication to Eric Rohmer, The Unspeakable Act is both a humanistic coming-of-age story and an example of restrained, thoughtful filmmaking.
Employing a stripped-down approach, featuring basic camera setups, and no soundtrack, Sallitt relies heavily on mise-en-scene, voiceover, long takes, and the actors’ work to create an atmosphere of reflection and inquiry. His camera doesn’t merely capture what’s going on, it lingers on images, encouraging us to investigate every nook and cranny of the space. And like Rohmer, Sallitt’s calculated aesthetic shares many similarities with literature, as the narrative is fueled by the protagonist’s mental state.
In Part 1 of this “Year of Love” series I indirectly used a theme from David Foster Wallace’s work to sum up the mindset of Theodore Twombly, the male lead of her. In The Unspeakable Act, Wallace’s influence hangs over Jackie (Tallie Medel) in a much stronger way (his name even comes up in the film), as her method of engaging with the world carries many similarities to his work. The piece the film is most reminiscent of is “Good Old Neon,” Wallace’s prize-winning story from Oblivion. In the story, Neal has committed suicide because of a chronic self-awareness, where he can’t get over the lack of authenticity in his identity, or in identity as a whole. In the opening paragraph, he states: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” Jackie is not in the same place as Neal, as she is neither suicidal nor ready to admit to any manipulations. She is, however, a victim of her own frame of mind. Like Neal, with a tendency for over-analyzing and over-sharing, she seems to observe life as opposed to experiencing it. And as the opening quotation shows, she’s mostly deceiving herself.
Jackie is also an unreliable narrator – though not in the sense of purposely deceiving the audience. Jackie is unreliable because she isn’t sure of anything. She’s confused, and as viewers, we are given access to her frame of mind, yet, at times, we are not even sure where her perspective is coming from. Sometimes, she is speaking from the present tense; at other times, future tense. The film never commits to any sort of singular reading, as Sallitt seems intent on leaving the story open-ended. We are not given answers because there probably are none. Jackie is a complicated individual, but she is also an everyday person with everyday problems. And though her situation may seem absurd, Sallitt treats her behavior with respect and seriousness, as we’re never invited to look down on her, or find her unbelievable in any way. Instead, we are meant to appreciate her humanity and her charismatic charm, because it is her reflective, analytical mind that drives the film forward.
We listen and watch as she talks and talks, informing us of her inner thoughts, without the least bit of embarrassment. In fact, Jackie may not know how to feel embarrassed. While admitting to being “messed up,” she’s also proud of her strangeness—and not proud in the sense of looking down on others, but proud in a “Hopefully, I’m unique” kind of way. Jackie also happens to be extremely intelligent. Coming from a family of intellectuals, her method for engaging with the world is deliberate, preferring reflection over action, kind of like a high-school version of Hannah Horvath from Girls, minus the ambition.
On a narrative level, we follow Jackie as she struggles to accept the changing dynamic of her relationship with Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). She claims sexual attraction, yet we are hesitant to believe that’s what she really wants. Not to say she is lying—for the film wisely steers clear of any definitive answers—but, from what we learn, she appears to embrace the idea of incest more than the reality of what it entails, having decided to be attracted to Matthew.
In a meeting with her therapist, Jackie explains that Matthew is the best person she has ever met, while adding: “I totally need to know everything about someone before I can get into them.” Following this logic, it seems Jackie equates love with absorption. Also, consider the opposite side of the equation: if Matthew accepts this love, then he must think Jackie is the most interesting person he has ever met. This may be a bit of a stretch, but Jackie seems to be rationalizing as opposed to letting life happen; a sentiment the therapist seems to share: “You don’t like the idea of being attracted to anyone other than Matthew, do you?”
Jackie’s attraction to Matthew is more about psychological compulsion than anything else. She’s at the age where she wants to move forward and grow, while simultaneously holding on to her childhood. But the film never commits to a singular reading. Also, there is so much we don’t know about the Kimball family– things Jackie doesn’t know about either. And this is where Sallitt hooks us. By providing a glimpse or two of the family’s history, we are invited to imagine how things may have played out.
For example, near the beginning, Jackie provides a voiceover summary of past events, where she talks about losing her father at an early age: “We all think his death was drug-related; Mama was addicted to drugs long ago, it was probably around the same time.” This is all we learn of her father, yet Sallitt emphasizes the moment through shot selection; the camera jump-cutting closer and closer to a framed image of the father, finally ending on an extreme close up of his eye.
But Sallitt also makes an effort to show how influenced we are by the people around us. Take the house itself, for example: on both the inside and outside, the colors green, burgundy, and yellow are everywhere; also, Jackie’s bike is yellow, her backpack burgundy, and her hoodie green. With this, Sallitt is connecting Jackie to her environment. And with one of the final shots being a dissolve of her mother and the house, he is stressing the impossibility of ever being unaffected by one’s surroundings. Notice also that when Jackie heads into the city, the streets embody the same green, burgundy, and yellow color scheme, thus suggesting that Jackie will continue having the same experiences wherever she goes.
In The Unspeakable Act, Dan Sallitt successfully holds our attention by creating an atmosphere of examination, where we are pulled into a particular mental state and held there until the end. Furthermore, Sallitt wears his references on his sleeve, drawing attention to Eric Rohmer, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo, while displaying the kind of talent and insight that makes him a director to watch out for. In other words, The Unspeakable Act is a film you need to see.
— Griffin Bell