“You need something all the time!” Mara snaps at Jo. “It gets difficult.” It’s a little comment, but one that’s been at least 10 years in the making. After more than a decade of intense — and intensely unbalanced — friendship in which the burden of emotional responsibility has only ever belonged to her, Mara (Tallie Medel) finds that her patience is starting to wear thin. Jo (Norma Kuhling) has just flaked out on dinner plans for the a zillionth time, and then shown up at Mara’s door at 12:40 A.M. in a fever about some other thing; she’s in another one of her panics about being fired from another one of her jobs.
Jo’s trouble goes a bit deeper than the average millennial’s post-adolescent slump, but Mara doesn’t really care about the reasons anymore. She’s getting her shit together. Not in a “strut into your high school reunion” sort of way, but she’s just landed a full-time position as a pre-school teacher, and she’s semi-actively looking for a long-term boyfriend. It’s hard to say for sure, but there’s a distinct possibility that her short stories are even getting a little better. There’s a thin line between support and submission, and Mara is beginning to realize that being the safety net for her spiraling best friend isn’t as fun as it used to be.
The fifth feature by revered critic, compulsive cinephile, and occasional filmmaker Dan Sallitt, “Fourteen” is a modest but gradually — and, in the end, greatly — affecting sketch of how even the closest of friendships can shift and wither over the years. People change in different ways. Some don’t change at all. It helps when there’s a clear reason beneath the shifting tectonic plates that cause the rifts between us, but it still hurts all the same. Lo-fi and even lower budget, as per the writer/director/editor’s usual custom (he reveres the deceptively absent visual aesthetics of Eric Rohmer, Hong Sang-soo, and the other grandmasters of casual suffering), Sallitt’s elliptical new film isn’t always pretty, nor is it certain that “Fourteen” would have suffered for having a more robust color palette or a compositional design that was less afraid of calling attention to itself. But even those viewers who don’t tend to fetishize the consumer-grade stylings of the digital age might find them to be more of a feature than a bug in this instance, as Sallitt effectively uses the DIY veneer to flatten time until you can feel the cracks start to show between its two major characters.
The film begins when Mara’s work day is interrupted by an urgent phone call from Jo, and in the moment it’s hard to tell that this has probably happened dozens of times over the course of their friendship. Mara doesn’t seem fazed — if anything, she’s eager to talk, as Medel (unforgettable in Sallitt’s “The Unspeakable Act,” and still acutely attuned to the filmmaker’s rhythms) plays her with the natural buoyancy of someone who’s always a bit too available for their own good. Mara, however, isn’t a pushover, or just some passive witness for a more interesting character; she may be contained, but she contains multitudes. Mara’s looking for love (or something), yet also exudes a mild contempt for any man who wants to touch her; she appears to be more inhibited and self-loathing than Jo, but so does everyone.
One early exchange cuts to the heart of things, as Jo surmises that Mara takes every come-on as an insult. There’s probably some hard evidence for that, but Jo is also the kind of person who blithely peppers every conversation with the kind of opaque witticism that can fit between the drags of a cigarette (e.g. “No one would ever hook up if they wanted to be honest about it”). If Mara acts like she got cut from a Todd Solondz film for being just a bit a too well-adjusted, Jo — a tall blonde whose unkempt summer beauty makes it hard for people to appreciate the seriousness of her struggles — feels like a would-be movie star who got irrevocably lost somewhere between auditions for Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach (Kuhling’s raw and febrile performance suggests that either of those auteurs would be lucky to work with her). These two girls speak totally different languages, but they understand each other well enough.
They walk around Brooklyn and talk about boys. They go on blind dates and double dates with a rotating cast of different men (a couple of whom deliver amateurish performances that call too much attention to the film’s threadbare quality), though Jo fades out of the picture when Mara isn’t with her. The abruptness of each new conversation feels clumsily framed until it’s clear that the lack of context is a kind of context unto itself: Weeks and months are disappearing into the space between scenes, and while Jo is a serial monogamist, there’s a different man in her life virtually every time Sallitt cuts back to her. One of them calls Mara to complain that Jo pulled a giant knife on him, and Mara rushes over to find her friend casually smoking in her nightie, sweltering and cool all at once. It’s one of the film’s many knowing moments of cracked platonic love.
Mara’s love life does more to complicate the timeline, as she pinballs back to the same guy. His name is Adam (Quad Cinema programmer Chris Mason Wells, a fixture of the New York film scene who’s friendly with this critic and everyone else in that world), and his dry humor and even drier career path make him seem like a good fit for a girl who’s ready to grow up. As their relationship becomes more of an on-again-off-again thing than anyone could’ve anticipated, Sallitt uses that volatility to focus our attention on what he skips over. One sequence is edited to look like Mara is brazenly cheating on Adam, but — as the film picks up speed and starts to leapfrog over years at a time — hindsight suggests that she was just making out with some random guy in between stints with her boyfriend.
The punctured chronology finally (and permanently) clicks into place when time stops for a few minutes in the middle of the film, as Sallitt holds on an uneventful long shot of a train station for somewhere between two and four minutes without blinking. Stretching that banal moment into a short eternity is enough to reorient our sense of continuity, the film’s most basic and uneventful image used to clarify that “Fourteen” isn’t aspiring towards the naturalism suggested by its unfussy aesthetic, but rather trying to mine a deeper kind of truth from the friction between the rigidity of Sallitt’s framing and the casualness of his action — between Jo’s archness and Mara’s ability to roll with the punches. That recalibrated perspective turns the movie into a kind of cinematic stereogram, as it crystallizes a phenomenon that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever looked back at a forever-length friendship in decline; to anyone who’s ever focused so hard on the defining moments they’ve shared with someone that their mind’s eye suddenly reveals the bigger picture.
As the film jumps ever faster into the future, moving through time like a pebble skipping across the surface of a lake, Mara’s sense of things starts to dovetail with our own. And when lifetimes of latent drama come home to roost in the surprisingly eventful final scenes, “Fourteen” builds to an unsparingly lucid assessment of what two friends can take from — and carry for — each other. Everyone is responsible to the people they love, but only so far, and only so long.
“Fourteen” premiered at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.