Review: Fourteen

Something about Fourteen, a drama about the unique connection between close friends over time, feels downright retro. It’s not a period piece, but it’s as if it was made in another era, the filmmaking, acting and cinematography all sparse, bone dry and as if improvised.

Back in the mid-to-late 2000s, we called that “mumblecore.” Seeing something like it again in a film ten years after that movement’s moment all but dried up is as jarring as it is intriguing. Whether this is what filmmaker Dan Sallitt was going for is uncertain, but the result is a sometimes interesting, minimalistic exploration of a relationship stretched thin over the passage of time and diverging circumstances.

Jo (Norma Kuhling) and Mara (Tallie Medel) are longtime friends, now young adults starting their lives and careers in New York City. Jo is a social worker; Mara works with kids. Jo struggles with mental illness and the instability it causes in her life; Mara tries to help where she can, while living her own more predictable life. We watch snippets of their lives unfold sans context or backstory, and often without so much as second camera angle in any given scene. This sparseness makes it hard, for at least the first half of the film, to connect with either of them, or to understand how or why their connection is as strong as it is.

Sallitt uses the thin structure to his advantage to express the passage of time; a decade goes by in the span of an hour and a half, as markers big and small indicate the changes of early adulthood. From slightly different haircuts to better apartments to the birth of Mara’s daughter, Fourteen takes the viewer on a journey as these two women figure out how they fit in each other’s lives (or don’t). By the second half of the film, Jo’s breaks are becoming more intense and Mara’s ability to help is waning, triggering a guilt that she can’t do more. Once Kuhling and Medel muster some emotion, their tense, fraying relationship actually becomes quite relatable—how does friendship transition from one phase of life to another, and do we even want it to?

Fourteen isn’t a film to get lost in—there isn’t enough of it there to make that possible. But with its nod to a bygone genre (one even those associated with it tend to rebuke), the narrative offers glimpses of a relationship that meant something once, one that endures even as its players evolve. If its scarcity doesn’t scare you away, that relationship—absent any frills (and sometimes any emotion)—is ultimately something universally understandable.