Love that’s anything but “Unconditional” grows increasingly unhinged in Brit tube helmer Bryn Higgins’ first bigscreen feature. Effectively disturbing if not entirely satisfying, this tale of a handsome older interloper who does serious quasi-romantic damage to twin teenagers has been picked up for North American distribution across all media by MouseTrap Films. Theatrical prospects look mild; in other territories outside the U.K., sales will likely skew toward home formats.
Good-looking 16-year-old siblings Owen (Harry McEntire) and Kristen (Madeleine Clark) are hardly enjoying their youth, as they’re sole caregivers to a disabled, gravely ill mother (Melanie Hill). When Kristen applies for a loan, she sees a thrilling diversion in 30-ish Liam (Christian Cooke), a flirtatious financial-services officer who dresses nattily and drives a flashy car. Yet it’s Owen whom Liam soon takes out on the town, getting him drunk enough to propose “having a laugh.” This means getting the reluctant boy in full female drag; his host just happens to have the relevant frocks, wigs and makeup on hand.
Owen is clearly being wooed. Yet when he leans in for a kiss later, wearing his usual duds, Liam snaps, “I don’t snog boys — I’m not a deviant. Get changed first.” While the boy is inexperienced and impressionable enough to go along to an extent, it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize there’s something very wrong with Liam, even beyond his needing to pretend Owen is a girl (both in private and in public). His fixation borders on the delusional, a violent temper flaring whenever he doesn’t get his way. Meanwhile, Kristen continues to mistakenly think she’s Liam’s real quarry and grows angry with Owen’s mysterious absences as their mother’s health deteriorates further.
Solid performances and the offbeat story hook keep” Unconditional” intriguing, even if Joe Fisher’s screenplay ultimately proves neither fish nor fowl. Liam’s behavior turns increasingly alarming, but the pic remains too naturalistic to become an outright thriller. At the same time, after a certain point, the conflict between man and boy stagnates in psychological terms; Liam goes ever more bonkers even as the viewer develops no deeper understanding of his evidently tortured mind. In the end, the pic resolves itself as an adolescent coming-of-age saga with some hard lessons learned, but this seems a tad rote, given the exceedingly bizarre way in which Owen has learned to “be himself,” not mold himself to someone else’s expectations.
That said, the tale is undeniably compelling, benefitting from low-key presentation that avoids the potential for titillating sensationalism. Modestly scaled production is well turned in tech/design terms. Thesps’ thick North Country accents may make some of the dialogue hard for offshore auds to understand.