Fourteen ★★★★

I’ve been a fan of filmmaker Dan Sallitt since 2013 after I sought out his film The Unspeakable Act. I was impressed with his ability to suggest the emotional state of his characters through subtle manipulations of form in the way his camera moved or the way he framed shots. It was with that film I was also introduced to actress Tallie Medel, who has been a favourite of mine ever since. With Sallitt’s newest film Fourteen he chronicles the evolving relationship between Mara (Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) as time causes their friendship to slowly fade out of focus for both women, and it is extraordinary.

Fourteen is similar in some ways to another favourite of mine from this year Never Rarely Sometimes Always in the way the subjective realities of female characters completely drives the political and social bonds of women. But while Eliza Hittman, who directed NRSA, frames her characters with an immediacy of touch where an act of holding hands speaks volumes for her characters, Sallitt’s camera stays back, a little distant, in these medium range wide shots while the moments between Mara and Jo flicker in and out without warning. It’s a filmmaking device that functions similarly to memory where only half of the experience may be present upon recollection. Despite the choice to fragment scenes with abrupt time jumps it never feels as if it at the expense of the either Jo or Mara. Both feel perfectly realized on screen due to the talents of Medel and Kuhling. Kuhling’s Jo has mental health problems of a sort and the root-cause of these issues is never revealed. The easier dramatics of a big coming out moment of trauma is unnecessary, because through Kuhling’s body language, and the bits and pieces of information given tells us everything that we need to know about the character. Jo is brilliant in some ways, but like a lot of brilliant minds she is burning out at both ends and the chances of her making good on the promise of her ability fades as she falls deeper into the rabbit hole of her own problems that she can’t seem to fix. To put it bluntly Jo can’t get out of her own way. It’s a little maddening, but it’s supposed to be, an entirely human response to pressures of what you’re capable of, but failing to reach those heights again and again.

Sallitt treats Jo’s difficulties with a level of utmost empathy, because he makes the smart choice to frame the film through Mara’s perspective. This puts a lot of weight on Medel’s performance as a catalyst for how we should feel as an audience in any given scene, and like always Medel is fantastic. She plays Mara with the perfect combination of being concerned and annoyed for a friend who is more like a sister. Even in moments of Sallitt’s casual approach to heightened drama there’s an easy-going quality between the two actors that makes it feel less like we’re watching a movie and closer to eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends. Of what I’ve seen from Sallitt he seems particularly interested in the way people communicate with one another, which makes him something of an American contemporary to someone like South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, whose films are largely driven by communication and subtle camera-work. Sallitt’s approach in Fourteen feels like the Mumblecore movement of American independent cinema of the 2000s all-grown up, with the maturity to see through the restlessness and privilege afforded to young people with options. Jo and Mara act like two separate paths of adulthood, and where Jo is anxious and unsettled in who and what she wants to become, and continually self-sabotages her own chances at settling into a role, Mara acts in opposition, and we see her becoming a teacher and a mother. Mara is dissatisfied in some ways too, but her feet are planted down in ways that seem almost impossible for Jo due to how she sees herself and her life.

Their differences make their friendship all the more satisfying to watch, because they fill one another out in a lot of ways. They’re almost like outlets for one another, but there’s this subtle feeling present from the beginning of Fourteen that the relationship between these two women is not meant to last. The editing in particular really elucidates this through fissures and fractures as time moves forward. Their relationship becomes more distant and Jo seems to fade and fade and fade until she’s barely in Mara’s life anymore. It’s through no fault of either woman that their childhood relationship that they hold so dearly cannot sustain itself, because life happens. People move, they have kids, they take on new jobs and these things make a friendship like Mara and Jo’s shrink. As time moves ahead Mara sees less and less of Jo, and sometimes she’s only on screen long enough to say hi before she has to go off and pick up her kid or go to her job. With all the build-up previously that encases their relationship they have to one another in some loose bond of the sacred it becomes downright tragic that they cannot find the time for one another. It’s brilliant in some respects, almost novelistic due to the rapid time changes, that there’s no sentimentality in the way these two women see each other through the years. Nostalgia is stamped out by objectivity and life moves on.

The beauty of Sallitt’s commitment to telling this story without frills strikes me as a bold decision. Usually in stories about women and the relationships that they have with one another we hug and make-up and cry, but that’s not always how things turn out. In Fourteen there isn’t an ending note that says they’ll be friends forever, because everything that Medel and Kuling are doing as actors suggests that their relationship is deeply important to one another. Through form and through acting no easy message needs to be delivered, because the importance of the relationships is inherent in every single scene. It hardly matters if things don’t work out, because everything that came before the dissolve of their friendship was significant to each woman. It’s a life that is not complete without the experiences one had with the other. In a time of extreme separation from those we care about I found that message deeply moving and so human that I immediately wanted to reach out to my closest friends. We take for granted that some people will be in our lives forever, because life hardly seems worth living without some people, but life has a way of always being unpredictable. Fourteen understands that fragile note of humanity and suggests we grapple with that too.