"In the spring of 2011, at the age of 18, my brother Matthew got his first real girlfriend," says the 17-year-old protagonist of "The Unspeakable Act" in voiceover as we see her riding her bike down leafy, idyllic streets in Brooklyn. "I had somehow thought that he and I had an unspoken agreement that we belonged to each other. Which was really pretty stupid of me."
She's hung up on her brother. In the wrong way. And she wants to broach "the i-word," as she puts it. "But that concept doesn't go over so well with Matthew."
Nothing ever happens. But her feelings are sincere. And I'm not sure New York-based filmmaker Dan Sallitt could have pulled off such an off-putting premise without a magnetic actress such as Tallie Medel in the role. She has big doleful eyes and wears her dark hair in a shag. She is small but solidly built — a force to be reckoned with, as her brother says at one point.
The film opens at the Siskel Film Center this week with Sallitt (who is both the film's screenwriter and director) in town for post-show discussions Friday and Saturday. When I spoke with him earlier this week, I asked how he landed on such a taboo subject.
"That's always a hard question," he said. "You get some crazy ideas that do not necessarily have anything to do with art. They just kind of fly through your head. And then, whichever one gives you a lot of interesting stuff to play with, sticks."
He didn't initially intend to make a movie about incest. "And I didn't, in any psychological or sociological sense.
"The fact that this girl has this complete lack of concern for society's moral code — she takes it into account in a practical sense, but it really never bothers her that what she wanted was something that was completely disapproved of all around — that generated a whole lot of notes and a whole lot of possible situations. It's this existentialist stance underneath this everyday teenage girl stuff."
The film is layered with her wry, sardonic voiceover. "One of the funny things about being in love with your brother is that you can say almost anything you want about him to anyone you want," she says, "because no one wants to go here. People will bend over backwards to put the blandest possible interpretation on whatever you say."
The film shares a certain discomfiting-but-impossible-to-look-away quality with Todd Solondz's 1995 cult classic "Welcome to the Dollhouse," although Sallitt leaves slightly more room for small bits of deadpan humor.
"I wanted to make her somebody who has the capacity to enjoy life and is not really depressed or a person who is meant to be sidelined," Sallitt told me. Medel was recommended to him by Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg (whose relationship comedy "Drinking Buddies" comes out this summer). It is a performance that makes an instant impact — sullen and charismatic and entirely singular — and it is the kind of role that should lead to bigger things for the actress.
Sallitt said he envisions the film as the first in a trilogy "based on the idea that this girl has amazingly managed to push these childhood feelings down further than she ever thought she would, but they have an almost subliminal way of resurfacing at certain crucial moments in her life. Part two treats that as comedy and part three treats it for near tragedy."
Sallitt doesn't make films quickly, though ("Honeymoon" came out in 1998, "All the Ships at Sea" in 2004). I asked if that was because of finances.
"It's about life. And finances. I have a day job. I'm a tech writer for the City of New York. This is how I've made a little extra money that I can plow into movies. But it's not just money, it's time.
"When you're working in the computer world, very often companies rise and fall and you find yourself on the street with whatever savings you have — and that actually kind of worked out because I would make a movie between jobs. For this movie, I made it on vacation time, which I saved up. So that's a factor too. Not just the money, but also the vacation time. It's a funny life. It's not the life of a full-time filmmaker at allu.
"Everything I've ever done has been self-financed. I have not yet been able to look anybody in the eye and say to them with a straight face that they'll get their money back. We'll see if I ever feel like I'm a little more" — he paused, searching for the right word — "presentable."
"The Unspeakable Act" plays at the Siskel Film Center through Thursday. Filmmaker Dan Sallitt will be at the Friday and Saturday screenings. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
TV in Chicago
News came earlier this week that Chicago will have a record six scripted series shooting in Chicago for the next TV season: “Chicago Fire,” it’s spin-off “Chicago PD” and “Crisis” for NBC; “Betrayal” and “Mind Games” for ABC; and the half-hour comedy "Sirens" (produced by Denis Leary) for USA.
The news, however, was tempered by the announcement that “Betrayal” (which will air 9 p.m. Sundays in the fall) is being positioned as a “limited” series, which means it will have a far shorter season. According to ABC president Paul Lee, "We'll do 12 or 13 episodes this season and maybe 12 or 13 [next] season."
On the bright side, at least one Chicago actor has a recurring role on the show. Carmen Roman (who is currently in American Blues Theater’s “Collected Stories”) will play a woman who finds herself unexpectedly involved in the show’s central murder investigation. And in other news, former Second City mainstager Lauren Ash has a major role on Rebel Wilson’s new ABC comedy “Super Fun Night.”
Docs in progress
Kartemquin Films, Chicago's preeminent maker of documentary films, will screen scenes from projects currently under way, including Xan Aranda's "Mormon Movie" (which analyzes two Mormon films, both of which starred her mother); "The Homestretch" by Kirsten Kelly and Anne de Mare (about youth homelessness in Chicago); Judith Helfand's "Cooked" (about the deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995) and "American Arab" from Usama Alshaibi (exploring modern Arab-American identity). All filmmakers will be there in person, looking for audience feedback. 5 p.m. Sunday at the Siskel. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
"Coin Toss," the comedic indie from Chicago filmmaker Satya Kharkar about a guy who can't seem to get his romantic life together, screens Wednesday at Muvico Rosemont 18 theaters. Per the review by filmthreat.com: "With a score that is bouncy with quirkiness, and an overall lighthearted tone to all events, the film fits itself into one of those comedies of serendipity, where the good and just are rewarded and the evil punished...somewhat. Honestly, there's not a mean bone in this entire film; even when things are going bad for (the main character), you're never that concerned." Go to muvico.com.
Teitel & Tillman
Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr., the Chicago-trained pair behind the "Barbershop" films, return to their alma mater Columbia College Chicago this weekend to receive honorary degrees at the school's commencement ceremonies.
Fund a film
Chicago native Lucas Neff ("Raising Hope") is executive producer of the indie film "Lay in Wait" (a drama about a young woman who loses her wedding ring while having an extramarital affair during a camping trip) and is raising money on Kickstarter. The amount he and writer-director Jonathan Ade are hoping to raise isn't that steep: Just $33,000 by June 15. If nothing else, check out their Kickstarter pitch video, it's a good one--entertaining, but also gives all the right information where it counts. Go to Kickstarter.com.
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