(Dan Sallitt, USA, 2019)


Two longtime friends, Jo (Norma Kuhling) and Mara (Tallie Medel), walk down a New York street together. Jo pulls out the money she owes, and Mara darts her eyes around anxiously, hoping that nobody is looking. During the same walk, Mara talks and doesn’t even notice when Jo suddenly darts in and out of a shop for a snack.


These details tell us, simply and economically, everything about the central characters of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen. Jo is a “difficult”, impulsive, unpredictable, sometimes unstable friend for Mara – who is the more solid of the pair, but also a little cold, withdrawn, resentful of the emotional demands made on her.


And what is Jo’s problem, ultimately? Mental illness, childhood trauma, drug dependence, family influences, a string of ill-chosen partners or bad relationships? She thinks it all started when she was 14 … but (as she herself says) maybe that was just puberty, as everybody experiences and more-or-less survives it. What makes Jo so special in her trouble? The film critiques our reflex tendency to diagnose or type people. Only in the complex push-and-pull of interpersonal relations – with the web of mutual blame and responsibilities they create – does anything make any sense.


Commentators love to compare Sallitt´s work (including his previous The Unspeakable Act [2012], also featuring Medel) with Éric Rohmer, Hong Sang-soo, Philippe Garrel … and, since he is an erudite cinephile and critic, all such associations are permitted. But by this, his fourth feature since 1998, Sallitt has surely won the right to be considered in his own terms. His manner is observational and compassionate, but also asks us to be attentive, to work at understanding.


Fourteen skips ahead through a period of years without the usual signposting of milestones and passing times. When Mara’s partner, Adam (C. Mason Wells), enters the apartment and greets her and their child, it’s up to us to figure out where they are at in the chronicle of their time together. Just as when Jo suddenly reappears on the street in Mara’s sight – seemingly replaced by a new best friend. And like when Mara finally cracks emotionally in the film’s sad epilogue: an emotion that is, as always in life (and death), too little and too much, too soon and too late.

© Adrian Martin 24 July 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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