They stand against a wall, as Jo takes a cigarette break, and Mara talks about dinner plans with a guy they used to go to school with, wondering if it’s a date or not. Mara is a teaching assistant who feels uninspired but stable, Jo is a researcher whose flashes of brilliance are cut with searching self-doubt. They’re both attractive, in different ways: Mara is short and self-contained; Jo is statuesque and domineering. The title is Fourteen, but these characters are New Yorkers in their twenties. We wonder where this is going.
They have many meetings like this, and there are moments when Mara finds herself stood up by Jo or is called to her rescue at inopportune moments. Seemingly insignificant details of their personalities are eked out. Mara goes on a date with a guy, steering an awkward attempt at a kiss into a friendly hug. Jo complains that her landlady doesn’t want her smoking in the apartment, disappears to get cakes and brownies, flops out of this job and that one, waves a wad of 20 dollar bills on the street, and invariably lets her compulsions get the better of her.
Fourteen is at its heart a film about depression, though it takes a while for that to become clear. In that way it’s true to how the black dog of mental illness makes itself known, an interruption to the cycle of functional thoughts, coming out of nowhere with semi-regularity, knocking someone off their perch. Jo succumbs to drug binges and days glued to bed, but they seem like isolated incidents; only when she’s quietly crumbling, talking a little faster, a little more erratically, do we, and Mara, properly realise this is becoming the pattern of Jo’s life.
The film plays out as scenes in a friendship, unfolding over the course of a decade. Director Dan Sallitt has now made four micro-budget features, and one of his key influences is the stark, emotionally rigorous French director Maurice Pialat who in films like We Won’t Grow Old Together established a similar rhythm to the one Sallitt creates here. It’ll be halfway through a dialogue scene before we realise how much time has passed since the last one, as layers of time and emotional knottiness accumulate by stealth.
Sallitt’s company is called Static Productions and, true to the name, his camera rarely moves, staring at the characters in an unflinching and unsettling manner. He uses a familiar stable of actors – there are appearances from Dylan McCormick, who was the leading man in Sallitt’s debut feature, Honeymoon, and Strawn Bovee, the lead from his follow-up, All the Ships at Sea. As Mara, Tallie Medel, who bothstarred in Sallitt’s incest drama The Unspeakable Act, is piercing, present and centred. As Jo, relative newcomer Norma Kuhling creates a delicate portrait of someone who seems wry and spontaneous, but who is quietly, incrementally losing her shit.
“You say something and their eyes glaze over and they’ve made up their mind – I’ve been watching them glaze over since I was fourteen,” she says of mental health professionals at the late point in the movie when the title is explicitly referenced. That was the year her cat died, the year she started slipping in and out of health. Beyond that, there’s no Rosebud smoking gun to explain what caused her problems, and indeed Fourteen is a film that resists histrionics and over-explanation at each of its stages.
Many of us have these forks in our road which ripple throughout the rest of our lives, depriving us of all we could have been, creeping up to sideswipe us. Most of us survive them better than Jo. But life often works the way it does in this film – chapters reveal themselves driftingly, or in hindsight, rather than with outbursts or crystallising speeches, and as we get older, we surprise ourselves with what we can get used to, whether it’s the pram in the hallway or the monkey on our back. When the tearful scene in Fourteen comes, a lot of chances have already passed by. This is a wonderful, subtly devastating film from a voice in American independent cinema that will hopefully become better known.