I wrote the following review of Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen for this week’s Cine-File Chicago list.
Dan Sallitt’s FOURTEEN (American)
Available to rent through the Music Box Theatre here
Have you ever felt a sense of responsibility to a friend in the present because of feelings of indebtedness you may have had to that person in the past? Have you ever anguished over whether to provide emotional or material support to someone you once cared about because you thought they might no longer deserve it? Does the process of growing up with someone necessarily entail growing apart? These are just some of the ethical questions you might find yourself contemplating while watching Dan Sallitt’s remarkable new movie FOURTEEN, which features two of the best performances I expect to see all year: Tallie Medel plays Mara, a 20-something woman living in Brooklyn who goes from being a preschool teacher’s aid to a full-time teacher while simultaneously navigating the complicated world of adult dating; and Norma Kuhling plays Mara’s childhood friend Jo, an emotionally unstable social worker who has difficulty keeping any one job, boyfriend or fixed place of residence for very long. The chemistry between these actresses is phenomenal: Through subtle body language, pointed glances and rat-a-tat-tat line readings (in which they frequently seem to be collaborating over the heads of whoever else may be in the room with them), Medel and Kuhling always manage to suggest a rich and complex history between their characters. Sallitt, in his fifth and best feature to date, deserves credit for directing the pair to underplay even the big dramatic scenes: These women are in many ways temperamentally similar while being presented in stark contrast to one another visually (Medel is short and dark-haired with an open, honest face while Kuhling is tall, fair, angular and more guarded), suggesting that they are meant to be seen as doppelgangers. While it is probably going too far to say that Mara and Jo represent two halves of a single personality, there is a lingering sense that each of these women, while on opposite narrative trajectories, could have easily ended up on the path of the other. The way Sallitt charts the evolution of their relationship over a span of several years in his uniquely quiet and de-dramatized fashion only makes the drama that is present all the more affecting. Scenes take place primarily indoors in modest apartments, restaurants and bars, unfolding in long takes that feature practical lighting, with the dialogue and performances always taking center stage. But what makes FOURTEEN not just a stirring experience but an exquisitely cinematic one is the daring nature of Sallitt’s elliptical editing. He tends to end scenes without ceremony, often straight-cutting from one seemingly unimportant moment to another, making it seem as if no time has passed. Then, all of a sudden, the abrupt appearance of a new boyfriend or even a new offspring in a scene dramatically contradicts this prior impression. The cumulative effect of Sallitt structuring his deceptively simple 94-minute film this way is that he impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all. (2019, 94 min) MGS