Unconditional represents the sort of great little gems you find at film festivals, those which you know nothing about but grab your attention with brave new filmmaking talent, in front of and behind the camera, and tackle a touch subject with real daring.
The story follows Owen (Harry McEntire) and Kristen (Madelaine Clark), two teenage twins growing up having to take care of their disabled mother (Melanie Hill). But when Liam, a handsome and charming loan officer, appears into their lives things take a turn as Owen is lured away from his life as a home carer and into the home of Liam who, among other things, forces him to dress like a woman and accept his “unconditional love.”
Challenging and difficult, Unconditional is not exactly an easy watch – despite small moments of true-to-life humour – and is all the better for it. Debut feature director Bryn Higgins’ film is ultimately rewarding because it doesn’t shy away from anything. With the bravery to mix different tones, one minute subtle and quiet and the next boiling over with emotion, that somehow work together really beautifully, it’s an effective and affecting drama that packs as much power as it does intelligently deal with delicate subject matter.
Scenes have a frankness and boldness that’s refreshing to see, getting into some dark areas about Owen and Liam’s sexuality with some moments that are extremely difficult to watch. It takes aim at the subject without pulling any punches while at the same time never feeling exploitative or sleazy. A difficult line which Unconditional walks with fine precision.
This is all bolstered by some terrific performances, especially newcomers Harry McEntire and Madelaine Clark as the two twins at the centre of the story. McEntire in particular has a very tough role to play, as he has to both show his willingness to escape from his hard life while not wanting it to be taken too far. Christian Cooke is also brilliant as the controlling and clearly disturbed Liam who uses his affluence and promise of a better life to fulfil his needs.
What’s perhaps most engaging about Unconditional is just how unpredictable it is. You’re never quite sure which direction it’s going as it often does change its tone and tact in a way that’s fascinating rather than frustrating. What could have been a crass or exploitative exercise is rather an impressively handled drama pulled off with intelligence and passion. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the EIFF 2012 so far.