Dan Sallitt, a critic and stalwart of New York-affiliated microbudget cinema, returns for his first directorial effort since The Unspeakable Act (a 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival selection), with Fourteen (2020), a years-long chronicle of the tumultuous relationship between two enduring friends, Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling). Sallitt tackled incestuous desire in The Unspeakable Act, and in Fourteen he continues to explore taboo subject matter and attempt to break down stigmas with plainspoken, occasionally deadpan honesty. The actors’ performances and dialogue may be distinctively mannered, but Fourteen‘s portrayal of mental health and addiction is richly empathetic and provocative. Whether lingering on a seemingly innocuous moment or abruptly cutting away from a more emotionally charged one, Sallitt lends the film an intriguing, idiosyncratic verve in an otherwise garrulous narrative sensibility.
While a myriad of peers and romantic partners seem to flutter through the frames and pass in- and out-of-focus of NYC-specific locations (including a cameo from a UW-Madison Communication Arts grad, Evan Davis), Mara and Jo’s connection bridges all gaps. Teenage friends now stagnant or hesitant in their late-twenties’ professions as a teaching aid and social worker, respectively, the women seek comfort in each other’s presences and passive advice. However, in the first act, it becomes clear that Jo’s feelings of anxiety and desperation are exponentially intensifying, as she resorts to flippantly self-destructive behaviors—like abusing prescription drugs and threatening a boyfriend—to defy and escape expectation. Mara rushes to her side each time, and Jo spills pieces of her internal woes without ever fully articulating the turmoil. This is perhaps the film’s greatest strength—sincerely committing to a character’s tangled psychology without ever tipping over into the platitudinous or reductive. Rather, Fourteen progressively focuses on hope for recovery and reconciliation.
Their roller-coaster of a relationship evokes the chaotic, complicated dynamic between Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) in Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical The Souvenir (2019). Unbound to trope-riddled templates, both these recent independent features are uniquely positioned to explore love and commitment in characters’ formative years, even as disturbing revelations pile up. Without intertitles designating passages of time, as the film can jump between several minutes and a couple years in a single cut, it fluidly captures the range of changes in life that happen as suddenly as they do naturally. À la Éric Rohmer, Sallitt has been wrestling with similarly interpersonal themes over his storied, thirty-plus-year career; and Cinematheque is additionally hosting a mini-streaming retrospective of Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986), Honeymoon (1998), and All The Ships At Sea (2004), in conjunction with the local online premiere of Fourteen from May 15 through 21.