For many, growing up often means growing apart. After the bubble of secondary education pops and shared experiences start to dwindle, childhood friendships are forced to address their shortcomings in the harsh light of the real world. Having once shared a bond as simple as the same science teacher or the same lunch period, the best friend from eighth grade is now the adult you don’t really have anything in common with anymore. Like two frogs in tepid water slowly brought to a boiling point, an inseparable pair can one day find themselves in the middle of a heated argument that puts an end to their relationship. Alternatively — as Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen demonstrates — the duo can choose to ignore the rising temperature, opting to be cooked rather than to leap from their uninhabitable environment.
Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) are one such pair in hot water, so to speak. On two separate paths for quite a while now, these childhood best friends turned distant acquaintances struggle to find time for one another in the hustle and bustle of their professional lives. This, despite living close to one another in Brooklyn. Mara is a teacher’s aide first and an aspiring writer second, hoping to one day land a full-time teaching position or get her stories published in a reputable magazine — whichever comes first. Jo is a lax social worker who bounces from agency to agency whenever the staff grows fed up with her lack of dependability. These two women comprise something of an odd couple, as anyone who knew them from school is quick to point out whenever they learn that Mara and Jo still keep in touch. Mara does her best to help Jo function, assisting her in the job search in the wake of her latest firing, while Jo tries her hardest to read Mara’s manuscripts, giving her full attention to the first 20 pages before ultimately losing focus. They both expend effort on the relationship, but it’s fleeting.
Weeks (sometimes even months) may pass before they get together again, but Mara and Jo are clearly best friends. Just look at the way others come and go in their lives. In a rotating cycle of romantic partners, work associates, and casual friends, Mara and Jo are each other’s only consistencies (even if this is entirely by default). But the time between get-togethers is increasing as the two get older. It’s really no one’s fault in particular — life gets busier, time moves faster, and certain relationships can slip through the cracks if you aren’t making it a priority to keep up with them. The issue is that, more and more frequently, Jo only seems to show up in Mara’s life when things are going wrong. From unceremonious firings to messy splits to mental-health flare-ups, Jo can’t seem to catch a break while Mara continues to move onward and upward. For a friendship that always seemed to be fraught with tension underneath the surface, this extra baggage Jo keeps dropping on Mara’s doorstep threatens to destabilize their entire dynamic.
Time is particularly cruel in Sallitt’s Fourteen. Jumping forward abruptly and refusing to re-contextualize with each new cut, the only frame of reference for the viewer lies at the fringe of Mara and Jo’s lives. A new boyfriend or job is typically the only clue that a temporal shift has occurred between one scene and the next. This consistently proves to be an extremely effective technique, if only because of the sheer level of relatability. (In addition to writing and directing Fourteen, Sallitt is also credited as the sole editor.) Beyond their differences in personality, their vastly dissimilar career paths, and their trove of unresolved issues, the most significant factor contributing to the growing distance between Mara and Jo is time itself. The days, weeks, and months are a wedge, and each scene break is a hammer that pushes the divide closer and closer to a clean break.
As that rift deepens, so do Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling’s performances. Medel’s portrayal of Mara is consistently acquiescent — almost passive, really. Life’s curveballs never seem to faze her all that seriously, and she faces each new challenge with submission rather than resistance. This is not to be confused with a lifeless performance, though: Medel makes Mara completely dynamic, changing over the course of the film’s years while still remaining the same old Mara at heart. Jo is practically the opposite, bucking and rearing with every bump in the road and refusing to accept responsibility for her actions. This demands a much more active performance from Kuhling as opposed to Medel, which the actress tackles believably more often than not. Save for one jarringly uncharacteristic display, Medel and Kuhling embody two thoroughly convincing characters who are believable as best friends struggling to maintain a connection worn thin. Kuhling will certainly receive higher praise than Medel — Jo is much more brash and chaotic and requires the actor to play a dominant role, while Mara is the reserved and timid one who is best played subtly — but both are equally deserving of acclaim.
On paper, Fourteen might sound derivative of a Noah Baumbach dramedy or another forgettable entry in the low-budget mumblecore subgenre. In execution, Sallitt and crew elevate the material through the use of unflinching realism, allowing for the merciless passage of time to make victims out of even the most guiltless individuals. Some will surely find the film’s mounting series of events a bit wicked, but it probably wasn’t the intention — there isn’t a trace of brutality in the storytelling or the style, but rather an emphasis on the devastation that can come from passivity. Fourteen highlights the difference between lending an ear and lending a hand. It’s one thing to listen to your luckless friend as they tell you about the latest havoc fate has wreaked on their life, but it’s something else entirely to reach out to them and see how they’re doing. In a symbiotic relationship, no one wants to always be the safety net. Figuring out this give-and-take is the key to making it last, and Fourteen is a good place to start.
Fourteen is now available to rent online through Grasshopper Films.