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Review: Fourteen is a Fine-Grained Contemplation of Friendship

It recognizes that even the sturdiest of friendships are inevitably tested by time and the evolution of personal responsibility.

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Fourteen
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Around the midway point of writer-director Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen, there’s a prolonged shot of a suburban train station outside of New York City viewed from a high surveillance-like angle. For a few minutes, we don’t see the film’s protagonist, Mara (Tallie Medel), or any other notable character—only the unremarkable activity of boarding and disembarking passengers. It’s a jarring departure in a work that has otherwise foregrounded conversation in every scene. Eventually, Mara appears and the camera follows her across a few lengthy panning shots to the childhood home of her friend Jo (Norma Kuhling), though the temporary pause in narrative stimuli provides a gentle pull of suspense, a feeling that the story we’ve been following thus far may perhaps be abandoned entirely.

In addition to recalling a similar scene in Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia and Helena (one that featured Sallitt in a small but critical role as an actor), this digressive moment imparts a serenity and sense of renewal that nicely complements Fourteen’s dominant theme: the relentless march of time and its indifference to personal hardship. It also points to the assimilation of Yasujirō Ozu’s contemplative style into Sallitt’s repertoire, which otherwise draws more from Maurice Pialat’s brand of elliptical, matter-of-fact realism. Balancing a fine-grained attention to character with placid detachment, the film traces a decade in the friendship of Mara and Jo, former grade-school friends who’ve sustained their bond into young adulthood, where they’ve both managed tenuous livelihoods in the Big Apple.

As Fourteen begins, Mara and Jo share a routine acquaintance, confiding in each other about various career and romantic entanglements, and as the film progresses, the consistency of their companionship wavers, though never as the result of any outsized conflicts. Theirs is a common, sturdy friendship, except Sallitt recognizes that any such friendship is inevitably tested by time and the evolution of personal responsibility. Herein lies the quiet wisdom of Fourteen: While certain incongruities between Mara and Jo are casually sketched early and often (Mara is headstrong and focused while Jo has anxiety issues that manifest in flightiness and drug use), they only start to assert themselves as conflicts as time presses on. Not until an hour into the film is there even an exchange that could be said to constitute an airing of grievances. And it’s a scene that might have produced a shouting match and a slammed door in a less confident film, but which here never reaches anything close to fever pitch.

What Sallitt cultivates instead through his unannounced and often startling leaps in chronology is a feeling of implicit tension, a growing fissure in Mara and Jo’s chemistry that bears itself out in pauses in conversation and in their interactions with a rotating gallery of supporting characters. Both women cycle through boyfriends over the course of the film’s timeline. Among them, Mara’s partner Adam (C. Mason Wells), who sees Jo as “trouble” early on in a bit of portentous dialogue that Sallitt might have done without, emerges as the most long-term, while many others come and go. Often, it’s their sudden disappearances from the narrative that signal temporal jumps; in the case of Conor (Dylan McCormick), a self-possessed older man who seems to provide a real sense of stability for Jo, his departure feels like a bottom falling out and an omen of things to come. (His brief reappearance later in the film exemplifies Sallitt’s feel for little details that unlock great depth of emotion.)

Much of Fourteen is shot in small Brooklyn apartments, often with characters planted up against walls and illuminated by practical lighting. Budgetary motivators notwithstanding, there’s a subtly interrogational quality to this stringent mise-en-scène, as though the characters were backed into circumstances from which only clear articulation can provide an escape. As in his previous film, The Unspeakable Act, Sallitt shows an interest in watching people rationalize their thought processes out loud, and with Medel, he has an actor who excels in portraying close listening and concise communication; some of her most compelling work occurs when the camera stays with Mara when she answers a phone call.

Kuhling, meanwhile, is more spontaneous and emotive, which is fitting for a character who gets fidgety in enclosed spaces and uninterrupted one-on-ones, and who at one point cites her revulsion toward the doctors who “are always wrong” in diagnosing her woes. With Jo, Sallitt has created a complex, wholly human character who nonetheless doesn’t naturally fit into his rational-minded and reflective cinematic world, who buckles under the interrogation of others, and it’s her capriciousness that Mara must eventually learn to distance herself from for her own sake. One of the last times we see Jo, she’s walking away from camera into a busy Brooklyn intersection—perhaps a call back to the earlier long take of the train station, a reminder of a larger network of people whose trajectories we ultimately have no control over. In Fourteen, Mara must come to accept the limits of her ability to influence these peripheral lives, and in doing so prompts an evolution of spirit that’s at once painful and transformative.

Cast: Tallie Medel, Norma Kuhling, C. Mason Wells, Dylan McCormick, Kolyn Brown, Willy McGee, Scott Friend, Evan Davis, Ben Sloane Director: Dan Sallitt Screenwriter: Dan Sallitt Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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