The Unspeakable Act: Edinburgh Film Review

Sensitive subject-matter is handled with tact and intelligence in this tart if talky US indie.

Dan Sallitt's indie film centers on an unorthodox family of Brooklyn bohemians.

EDINBURGH - At 57, writer-director Dan Sallitt looks to have belatedly made a definitive transition from film-critic to film-maker with his third feature, The Unspeakable Act. Tackling the thorny subject of sibling incest head-on with spiky intelligence and a literary brand of articulacy, this smart if slightly chilly US indie is set in an unorthodox family of Brooklyn bohemians. Among the more favorably-received among a slew of US indies at Edinburgh having world-premiered shortly before at New York's BAM Cinemathek, it will be a popular choice on the festival circuit. Select domestic distribution in arthouses and via VOD are also indicated for a production which features numerous active critics in behind-the-camera roles and can thus expect significant coverage in both web and print media.

Though looking somewhat older than her character's 17 years (working out the characters' ages is a frequent distraction), diminutive newcomer Tallie Medel compels attention as intelligent, analytical high-schooler Jackie Kimball -- whose dark green bushbaby eyes peer out at the world under black bangs. Brought up in austere comfort by her writer mother -- played by Aundrea Fares as an wispily ethereal Patti Smith lookalike -- after the mysterious, possibly drug-related death of her father, Jackie is on nodding terms with her sister Jean (Kati Schwartz) but has long nursed an intense crush on her charismatic, scholarly brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). This she details in exhaustive voiceovers that make up a hefty proportion of the script.

Matthew is fully aware of the situation -- as Jackie puts it, the duo have always had an "unspoken agreement that we belonged to each other" -- but has no urge to reciprocate, the pair living in their own little world thanks to their mother's benign neglect. Matters come to a head when Matthew departs for college, sending Jackie into such a crisis that she ends up in therapy -- at the picture's halfway stage, this being the first time that we actually learn the protagonist's name. Former Los Angeles Reader reviewer Sallitt, whose two previous outings (1998's Honeymoon and 2004's All the Ships at Sea) were generally liked by the few who saw them, thus signals that therapy is the first step of Jackie moving away from her fixation on Matthew and coming to terms with her own identity as an adult. Indeed, by the end his picture feels a little too much like a slightly pat advertisement for the benefits of psychiatry.

But there's more than enough going on here to compensate for the script's occasional tendency towards on-the-nose exposition of feelings, and evasive contrivances such as the family having a solid but unspecified source of wealth which ensures that they have plenty of time to dwell on their neuroses. Sallitt's mature attention to detail of behavior and motivation gives the Kimball clan sufficient depth and distinction to ensure there aren't too many echoes of over-educated, over-articulate families from fiction (J D Salinger's Glass stories spring to mind) or cinema.

Unapologetically highbrow in its austere, scoreless approach and its probing engagement with intellectual matters, The Unspeakable Act certainly contains no shortage of chat -- even if the matter of incest is "unmentionable" and too tricky to be tackled in conversation among the Kimballs themselves. Proceedings are leavened by a streak of disarmingly mordant humor -- though we're some way from the bracingly acidic wit of the most recent incest-themed American indie, Alex Ross Perry's agonizingly awkward The Color Wheel. And while there's the nagging suspicion it might have been best developed as a novel, the film does work as cinema thanks partly to the efforts of its cast, and also via the production-design by Bridget Rafferty and camerawork by Duraid Munajim who together make the rambling, clapboarded Kimball residence enough of a character to justify Jackie's description of it as her "native country."

Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival
Production company: Static Productions
Cast: Tallie Medel, Sky Hirschkron, Aundrea Fares, Kati Schwartz, Caroline Luft
Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Dan Sallitt
Producers: Shari Berman, Ania Trzebiatowska, Jaime Christley
Director of photography: Duraid Munajim
Production designer: Bridget Rafferty
Sales Agent: Dan Sallitt, Brooklyn
No rating, 91 minutes.