Fourteen Is the Heartbreaking Tale of a Doomed Friendship

Paste magazine originally published this article on June 14, 2020.

Fourteen explores lives in transit. Dan Sallitt’s minimalist epic takes up the slowly unspooling friendship between Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), two twenty-somethings in New York City building careers in education and social work, respectively. The unsentimental drama aspires to, and mostly succeeds, evoke a slice-of-life naturalism, illustrating the slow strain of a one-time best friendship that becomes too difficult to support over the years.

Sallitt’s low-budget indie can trace its roots to the mumblecore of Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers. Mara and Jo speak as real friends might, listlessly and with little pretense, and sometimes waxing poetic. When Mara asks Jo what her new boyfriend is like, Jo curtly replies, “I don’t know, what’s anybody like?” while smoking a cigarette.

Fourteen presents a vivid portrayal of the minutia of a friendship, especially its rhythms. Sallitt’s editing style cuts together moments from their lives in a gamified way, with the viewer having to discern how much time has passed between one scene and the next, the time jump made discernable by a character’s new job or boyfriend. As a viewer, the feeling is that we’re brought into each scene in medias res. But this jumpy, fragmented way of editing adds to the film’s brand of realism. It helps that the film was shot gradually over several years—Sallitt’s previous film was 2012’s The Unspeakable Act, which also starred Medel—so changes in the characters’ appearances reflect the actors’ movements in time. As a result of the editing, each scene is pared to the essential, capturing Mara and Jo at a particular moment, allowing the viewer to observe subtle differences in each character’s behavior, from an annoyed tone on the phone or a missed dinner.

Since Sallitt organizes time in this way, what happens out of the frame is crucial. The film is marked by fissures and gaps: time jumps and gulfs between what is said and left unuttered. This means that Fourteen doesn’t overexplain, but it also creates a distance between the viewer and the lives of Mara and Jo, an effect that’s amplified by the film’s aesthetic, which favors wide shots and long takes. We’re never given full access to what’s going on in either of their heads; rather, we gaze at them as outsiders might, as a fly on the wall.

Mara and Jo appear to be one another’s foil. Mara is a teacher and aspiring writer, ambitious, organized and possessing a kind of inner, unperturbed calm. She ends up acting as a guardian of sorts to Jo, a gifted yet distracted ingenue who bounces around from different social worker jobs. For the first half of Fourteen, Mara is always ready to help Jo with her struggles with mental illness and substance abuse. Early on, while Mara is out to dinner, her date tells her that he liked her latest short story. He opines that her fiction is “unexpected,” “very quiet” and without “a lot of frills.” That judgement fits Mara, the film’s protagonist, as well, with her matter-of-fact-ness, and crisp, jet black bob. Sallitt might intend for this exchange to be self-referential, since without “a lot of frills” aptly describes Fourteen.

Sallitt’s work is a character portrait, or perhaps more aptly a portrait of a friendship, and while he focuses on Mara and Jo growing apart, its clean, cauterized treatment of the characters might isolate some viewers, since very little actually happens onscreen aside from talking. Emotionally charged moments are skipped over, such as the demise of Mara and Jo’s romantic relationships, the birth of Mara’s child and Jo’s overdoses, and we take them as a fact of this film’s reality, rather than things to experience as they unfold. The friends aren’t two-dimensional, however, thanks in part to nuanced performances from Medel and Kuhling, plus Sallitt’s sharp dialogue.

However, the movie is so concerned with the breakdown of its friendship that it doesn’t always give viewers the space to see why the friendship was so important to begin with, until the very cathartic end. As a result, some of Fourteen’s sequences of levity wherein we can forget that the friendship is wearing thin and are reminded of why they were friends in the first place—like sex jokes exchanged when Jo’s boyfriend leaves the room, or a snide smoke break—provide welcome balance.

Fourteen is concerned with what time does to a friendship, but also with how the viewer experiences time and movement. During an interview with Cineaste, Sallitt says he told his production crew that he was going to insert a scene that would essentially put the movie on hold for several long minutes, saying, “I went up to Katonah smiling, telling my crew that I was going to stop the movie dead for four minutes, and they said, ‘Really?’ I always wanted to do that scene in that way.”

After a sequence of dramatic tension that implies concern for Jo’s physical and mental health, Sallitt positions the camera away from the action, away from the characters, showing a train station in Katonah, New York, with passersby walking out of the station and entering the maze of the parking lot. None of the pedestrians are immediately recognizable as characters we’re familiar with. What Sallitt is interested in the ordinary moment of pause, an unsentimental shot of everyday life and transit. That is, until the viewer eventually recognizes Mara from afar while she’s walking in the crowd. The unexpected scene offers an opportunity to observe Mara in a time and place that feel divorced from the film itself. The effect is like getting to see a friend you haven’t seen in a while and observing her mannerisms and way of moving through the world through a new lens.

The camera follows as she walks to her car. It’s a compelling and bold, albeit slightly jarring, scene that reveals Sallitt’s ambitions for the film as a work that revels in the quiet and mundane fixtures of life that also gets the viewer to take notice of the passage of time. Even if the scene is not entirely successful—the same point could have been made even if it was abbreviated—it illustrates the kind of playful experimentation that low-budget, experimental independent cinema like Sallitt’s can offer. Fourteen’s ambitions are a bit grander than its execution, but Sallitt, who is a film critic in addition to director, is grappling seriously with form as he examines what’s in a friendship.

With each passing scene, there’s a sense that Mara and Jo’s friendship is also the fantasy of an indissoluble friendship, tied together by aspirations to see the other in a way that no one else ever could, or the false promise that their once easy, breezy relationship could stay the same as time goes on. There are only a handful of moments in Fourteen that show Mara and Jo speaking honestly about the state of their friendship, although it’s possible some of that dialogue occurs out of the frame. The final scenes, however—particularly the one where Mara tells her young daughter what Jo has meant to her in a fairytale sort of way —provide genuine catharsis, and is made more resonant due to Sallitt’s temporal restraint.

Fourteen is a perceptive, precise and sometimes deeply affecting tale of friendship, although its editing style may make the film feel a bit too fragmented for some. And while the splintered structure leaves potentially crucial moments in the friendship timeline to the imagination, it also gives an impression of Mara’s most lasting memories being played back to her, the relationship’s demise written into the film’s very beginning. Fourteen is a slow and quiet work, but its compassionate storytelling and yearning for connection resonates.

Director: Dan Sallitt
Writer: Dan Sallitt
Starring: Norma Kuhling, Tallie Medel
Release Date: May 15, 2020

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