“Fourteen” is a passage of time film that chronicles the stories of a pair of best friends living in New York City who struggle through their friendship, relationships, and all around lifestyles during the course of ten years. It is one of the most unique American independent films to be released in years because it explores emotional turmoil and life struggles all done in an authentic and brutally honest way. The film examines how emotional anxieties become a detriment not only to our own livelihoods, but to others around us.
The film is a remarkable one, a film that captures modern alienation where the characters deal with serious emotional anxieties and depression that never moralizes or derails itself into simple answers or maudlin manipulation. The two best friends, two women in their mid-late twenties who were raised in Upstate New York have been friends ever since middle school, and now, for various reasons, they find themselves living in New York City. We meet them early on as they touch base outside of their apartments. There’s Mara (Tallie Medel, single and in her mid-late 20s, a tutor who guides children through their homework.
Then there’s Jo Mitchell (Norma Kuhling), Mara’s best friend, who is a social worker who shows signs of being negligent at her job. As the film unfolds, the friendship between Mara and Jo Mitchell will be shaken, they are in and out of different relationships, some end, and other ones begin. If this were another film the characters would have relationships with caricatures, it would probably feel like a girl-mance or buddy-movie, and there would probably be more satire on the New York City lifestyle like something Noah Buambach, Greta Gerwig or Lena Dunham would write.
However, “Fourteen” goes on its own way, and its deeply affecting and quietly fascinating how the film invites us to go on this journey with two deeply flawed characters, and film critic and micro-budget filmmaker Dan Sallitt confronts harsh emotional truths with these women, how they can reconcile themselves and hopefully maintain a grip on their friendship and lives before it demises in front of them.
Both of these friends are undeniably close, but there are moments when their friendships drift in and out with hardships and disagreements as many friendships do. Because they are both very sophisticated women, they both suffer from their own insecurities-but not enough to stop moving forward, at least not for Mara who has ambitions, but you can sense Jo’s life is trapped in idleness.
Mara can also sense Jo Mitchell’s life and relationships aren’t really moving forward, she notices Jo has many bad habits of oversleeping, being late for work, and even neglecting work. She knows Jo has great potential, sophistication, and wit. That is why earlier in the film Mara takes a great initiative to assist Jo in completing her application process to finish up her degree so she can get a better paying job in her career. But Jo doesn’t have the drive to keep moving forward. Throughout the course of the film we see Jo in-and-out of relationships, some with very nice men, others mix her up with her pills, and as time progresses she becomes more self-destructive and severely more depressed which essentially makes both women more miserable.
The friends try to keep their private lives from one another, and Sallitt does an exceptional job at crafting this story more with observation than with exposition. He doesn’t give simple answers, but allows psychology and great ambiguity on the mental state they are in, but eventually some emotions come out, in a brutal conversation where Jo Mitchell breaks down from severe pressure, Jo Mitchell brings up pain she felt at the age of fourteen, hence the title. Something occurred traumatically in her life that year that leads to her breakdown, and proclaiming herself as a “Fuck-Up.” This scene, and several others, confront the austere harsh realities of life.
Hanging over all of their choices, in the movie’s earlier scenes, Mara asks a boyfriend Adam (Film Distributor Kino Lorber’s own C. Mason Wells), after spending the night, what his fantasy is, her boyfriend announces he once had an experience of holding hands with two girls at the same time at a movie theater. Mara plays around with the idea of having an open relationship, ponders the idea of inviting Jo into their bedroom to sustain Adam’s fantasy, but she quickly singles her out because it wouldn’t feel right. This is a pivotal moment in the film where these two close friends, having endured one unhappy relationship after another, want happiness and to make the right choices but are always uncertain how to do that.
As mentioned above, “Fourteen” was written and directed by Dan Sallitt, a former film reviewer for Mubi, Slate, The Chicago Reader, and The Village Voice. His style echoes the style of John Cassavates: a film shot on weekends and in friends’ New York apartments that hold that DIY indie style that premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, was picked up by indie distributor Grasshopper films, and hopefully we will see more work from Sallitt in the future. We’re now in an era where anyone can now pick up a camera and shoot films on weekends, with little to no money. However, not as many feel as genuine or with such curiosity as Sallitt does.
This film brings into focus how friendships are, especially involving people dealing with their own traumas. The structure of the film holds a rhythm, we’re always in different stages and periods of time throughout the course of ten years. Mara almost becomes like a failed guardian as Jo struggles with depression, mental illness, and substance abuse. While this film will surely be a challenge with its emotionally charged subject matter, it is quite fascinating that many pivotal moments in the film are skipped over like the birth of Mara’s child, relationship break-ups, and Jo’s overdoses. All of this is revealed with the passage of time, through exchanges, and unfolds like cinematic theater. Both of the performances by Medel and Kuhling are commanding and hold a lot of dramatic weight. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film involve Mara telling her 5-year-old daughter Lorelei (Lorelei Romani) a bedtime story that involves her first encounter with Jo which involved Jo standing up for her in middle school against some fellow classmates “mean girls” who were bullying her. The most soul crushing scene comes at the end where Lorelei remembers her mother’s story about Jo and asks about the status of the friendship. These scenes left my heart crushed, as I admittedly shredded many tears. This is just how emotive and universal this film really is.
This is one extraordinarily unique film that is filled with so many dramatically affecting and brilliantly done individual scenes. It’s about two women trapped in their imperfect ways as they struggle to retain their friendship, which ends in a very cathartic way that will forever haunt my mind. Sometimes friendships prevail, sometimes they struggle, and other times they derail as we outgrow them. Life is like that, and that is what makes Salitt’s vision so pure. Not only is “Fourteen” one of the most authentic and richest films of the year, it’s one of the most authentic and richest films about friendship in recent memory.
https://projectr.tv/fourteen/ (Stream it)