Talk about a title that points toward its subject, once you know it’s about a young man and his younger, seventeen-year-old sister in a verdant corner of Brooklyn: what would, could that “unspeakable act” be? In film critic/filmmaker Dan Sallitt’s “The Unspeakable Act,” the act is spoken, with a dramatic tact and flow of uncommon precision. About half an hour in, there’s a scene shot in a single extended take, where Jackie (Tallie Medel) and Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) have peeled off from a group of friends, leaning into each others backs while sitting on a park bench. The light under leafy green trees is gentle, and the sounds of the city and the night precisely present, hush of traffic, a commenting insect. “This is such a perfect night,” Jackie says. “It’s what I wish life could always be like. I know, it’s just a fantasy but it’s very sweet.” A pause. Matthew says, “Maybe it wouldn’t be much fun if it weren’t a fantasy.” “Well, we’ll never know, will we?” Jackie says, and Medel’s little uptick is everything. A pause. “Since when did you get so resigned to your fate?” She has the words, as she often does: “What makes you say that? All my life I’ve known there’s no solution, I don’t have any expectation of us having a life together. I never have.” She pauses. A child’s voice, raised nearby. She continues: “I’m not talking about the unmentionable act, I don’t think that’s such a big deal. I think that’s just a matter of logistics.” He rolls his words wryly: “Or, an unmentionable act that gets mentioned a lot.” “Ahh, ha, don’t that make you uncomfortable? Come on! You like it! You’d be sad if I lost interest. The phase were over. You’d feel abandoned.” These words are good on the page, but spoken aloud, performed, inhabited, murmured and slightly slurred, they are fantastic. What I am describing tells you nothing the title hasn’t, the conflict shimmers, is spoken, measured, paced, placed. Circumstance is ritualized, pondered, considered. These performances are so exact, and Medel’s is incandescent. She places each instant of her character’s directness with tossed-off accuracy. Sallitt dedicates “The Unspeakable Act” to Eric Rohmer, and there is some of the cloistered hush of Salinger’s Glass family here, but this fluent film has its own serene yet vivid life. With Andrea Fares, Kati Schwartz, Caroline Luft. 91m. (Ray Pride)
“The Unspeakable Act” plays Friday-Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday at Siskel. Sallitt will appear at the weekend shows. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.