Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2019: Fourteen

Kris Rothstein

Fourteen is the story of a friendship between two women. It is told from the perspective of Mara, the stable, responsible half of the pair, in every way the opposite of her brilliant, flighty friend, Jo. The film reveals how Mara navigates her life and her relationship with the beautiful but erratic Jo over a period of about ten years. Jo is unreliable and intense, and though the two women are close, it seems clear that if they met at a later point in their life, they would not be friends. Their shared history binds them together, and Mara accepts the baggage of having a friend who can’t get her life together (missed dinners, desperate calls late at night, constant financial instability).

This is the fifth film of American director Dan Sallitt, so he knows what kind of aesthetic he is trying to achieve, and how he wants to work with actors. Fourteen attempts a portrayal of realistic life, where dialogue is not usually snappy or entertaining, and even dramatic moments are not that remarkable. A relaxed, natural, and low key atmosphere are created by believable (for the most part) performances and a lack of soundtrack or background music. These techniques are similar to those used in the mumblecore films I love from about ten years ago (such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather). Mumblecore, a sub-genre of indie American films, used a lot of improvisation, mundane scenarios, and characters who were often young and aimless to create extreme realism. This film shares these qualities but lacks the wry introspection and humour present in mumblecore, and might have benefited from taking itself a little less seriously.

Sallitt moves time forward without explanations using visual cues such as new haircuts, new boyfriends, new jobs. Some of these cuts are jarring, but as a whole, the technique of jumping ahead in time without filling in any blanks is effective as storytelling, forcing the viewer to figure out what has happened in the interim. Fourteen feels like someone is looking back and recounting the story of one strand of their life. We know that whole other segments of Mara’s life are happening outside the scope of this film (she gets a job as a teacher, she has a child) and that we’re just seeing glimpses of her through this one story. That sense is very strong in the film, where the gaps are as intriguing, if not more so, than what’s shown on screen. The accumulation of detail over the many scenes from Mara and Jo’s lives together is ultimately compelling, feeling much more like a real relationship than most I’ve seen on screen. It’s messy and exasperating and often even boring. But you do come to care for the characters and to believe in them.

The film is more interesting as an experiment in form and extreme naturalism than an examination of female friendship; the beautiful but crazy friend story is fairly played out. Because most of the action and acting in the film is so understated, it is a shock when Mara actually has an emotional outburst and expresses her sadness and despair at trying to help a complicated person. It has always been clear that Jo is on a destructive path but Sallitt is restrained in the snapshots he chooses, both of Jo’s predicaments and Mara’s attempted rescues. So there is no feeling of desperation or melodrama, just tension. Fourteen is able to bring to a feature film the same kind of understatement, concern for authenticity, and attention to detail that is more often seen in documentary films shot over many years, and it makes for a worthwhile viewing experience.

The film plays October 4th at 9:15 PM at International Village 9 and October 5th at 3:30 PM at International Village 8.



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