Working with micro budgets, filmmaker and film critic Dan Sallitt has developed a style of contained and subtle storytelling that focuses on individuals and their opaque emotional tribulations. In his fourth feature Fourteen, a dialogue-driven portrait of friendship burdened by depression, he zeroes in on two women with volatile dating patterns and anxieties galore. Both intimate and explosive, the minefield relationship between Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) is nudged forward by one-sided commitment and loyalty. Fourteen is carefully paced and quietly reigned by words and glances.
The filmmaker attributes his desire to give dialogues the space and time they need to Eric Rohmer. But the French auteur seems to have been an influence across-the-board. Sallitt’s contained cinematography gives it away: like Rohmer, he chooses thought over action. Straightforward and muted, his images are stripped from any superfluous frill. The tight and sparingly composed frame keeps the characters at arm’s length. Without a soundtrack and virtually no close-ups to distract, the film goes straight to the essence of the connection between the two women.
One particular shot halfway through the film goes on long enough (3 minutes) to both show a train arriving into the station and passengers leaving the station building, all within the same frame. The length and the quietness of the shot allow the digestion of previous avalanches of dialogue. But it also feeds into Sallitt’s and his characters’ notion of time. Recovering at her parents’ place from an episode, Jo wears a t-shirt that reads “Time becomes meaningless”, emphasizing her depression-inducing nihilism (or is it the other way around?). Time does fly by, oblivious and unnoticed. And so do the filmmaker’s narrative ellipses. From one scene to another, the years have passed but the characters and their environment have barely changed. We find clues in the dialogue and in the exchanged awkwardness of old friends who fell out of touch and bumped into each other by complete chance.
Occasionally, the camera pans from one character to another. But for the most part, it remains static and the characters enter and exit the frame like they would a room. Jo, specifically, is unrestrained by that frame just like she is by life’s burdensome constraints. Walking down the street with Mara, chatting about their lovers, she disappears into a shop mid-sentence to get a brownie, leaving her friend to walk alone. The conversation became a monologue in a snap. The furtive moment encapsulates their whole relationship: while Mara cares, Jo remains unbothered. While the first one builds and grows, the other one keeps fiddling around and eventually comes to a standstill.
Jo descends, over the years, in an increasingly disorienting spiral of listlessness and detachment fuelled by drugs and casual boyfriends. When Mara steps into her friend’s breach for the umpteenth time, putting her own sorrows aside, she questioningly repeats Jo’s words “your eccentricities and anxieties aren’t part of who you are?”. Jo desperately seeks elucidation, and perhaps legitimation, for her existential angst but that’s difficult to find when the passing of her pet cat, Cindy, seems to be the worst thing that has happened to her in their fourteen years of friendship.
In the same vein as Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), Fourteen divergently offers a portrait of millennial women in their urban habitat, complete with perpetual forehead frowns and fragile mental health. An admirable and timely exercise for which Sallitt’s Rohmerian approach and the acting prowess are an adequate fit.