Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Movie Review: Fourteen

Fourteen **** / *****
Directed by: Dan Sallitt.
Written by: Dan Sallitt.
Starring: Tallie Medel (Mara), Norma Kuhling (Jo Mitchel), Lorelei Romani (Lorelei (5 years), C. Mason Wells (Adam (Mara's boyfriend), Dylan McCormick (Conor (Jo's boyfriend), Kolyn Brown (Leah (Mara's co-worker), Willy McGee (Josh (Jo's boyfriend), Scott Friend (Jonathan (Mara's boyfriend), Evan Davis (David Marshall (Mara's date), Ben Sloane (Tim (Jo's boyfriend), Caroline Luft (Mrs. Mitchel), Strawn Bovee (Mara's mom), Solya Spiegel (Mara's tutee).

The two main characters in Fourteen – Mara and Jo – are one of those pairs of friends where it becomes increasingly hard to tell if it’s more accurate to say that they’ve been best friends since they were fourteen, or were best friends at the age of fourteen, and are just hanging on because it’s easier. The film, written and directed by Dan Sallitt, is a lo-fi drama, which takes place over the span of several years – where scenes can take place eithers hours, days, weeks, months or even years apart, and you only gradually figure out which. They are both young, millennial women trying to get their careers off the ground, their personal lives in order – and it becomes increasingly clear that Mara has more of her shit together than Jo does. But Jo’s problems run deeper than millennial malaise or entitlement – there is mental illness in there as well. But as time passes, Mara finds she cannot keep holding on, keeping being there for whatever the next crisis Jo creates is. She has her own stuff to worry about.

Mara (Tallie Medel) is the main character in the film – she’s the one we follow from scene to scene, as she tries to get things in order. When the film opens, she’s out of school, trying to make it as a writer, but also working as a teaching assistant. She wants a boyfriend, but is more than a little inhibited – less sure of herself than she should be, more suspicious of the men who want her than is healthy. Jo (Norma Kuhling) is the wild card here. Everything she calls up Mara, it’s for another emergency of her own making. In the beginning of the film, Mara is all too willing to drop everything for Jo, eager to talk things through, offer advice, a shoulder to cry on, etc. Jo bounces from one job as a social worker to the next – always assuring Mara that her aversion to working mornings isn’t an issue, despite losing one job after another because of it. She always seems to have an interesting new boyfriend as well. They all like Mara – think she’s “good” for Jo. Eventually though, they keep leaving.

The performances of the two leads are remarkably different, yet work together beautifully. Mara is quieter, more serene – her troubles are relatable to anyone who has struggled through their 20s, trying to find themselves. Kuhling is more like a force of nature – blonde and beautiful, she takes over the screen every time she’s on it. But because she’s blonde and beautiful, people underestimate her own troubles – her own struggles. You assume for a while it’s just self-absorption, and what we could be seeing is the story of a quieter person who needs to learn to stand up to someone who comes in and bulldozes her life repeatedly. Only gradually does Jo’s real issues become clear – the degree of her struggles and demons come out.

Yet, while we end up feeling sorry for Jo, you also feel tremendous empathy for Mara. She is more together, more stable – but has her own issues. She has been dating a man for years, and on the night, they are supposed to sit down and talk about where things are going before he leaves on yet another business trip, Jo shows up at the apartment, unannounced. She had flaked on them, again, for dinner, and now it’s well-past midnight. Mara cannot keep living this way – and as the film progresses into its last few scenes from there, presumably the scenes are farther and farther apart then, it becomes clear she doesn’t.

As a director, Dan Sallitt isn’t going for any fireworks. He apparently admires directors like Erich Rohmer and Hong-sang Soo, and it shows in his unfussy, decidedly low-budget feel. He favors long takes, and when the camera moves, it’s always a very deliberate decision for a deliberate reason. The film keeps pushing into the future, until it’s heartbreaking final scenes. It’s the type of ending full of pain, and yet one where you understand how you got there, and how it really isn’t anyone’s fault. People can only hold on for so long.

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