Fourteen ★★★★


Standard Sallitt disclaimer: Dan's a friend who votes in my annual year-end survey, the Skandies. So is/does C. Mason Wells, who plays a key supporting role in this film. Likewise Vadim Rizov, who shows up in a walk-on part that he swears is not meant to be a homeless dude, sure bud whatever you say. Feel free to calibrate accordingly, though you should also know that there are few cinephiles around with whom I agree less frequently than Dan—our taste is almost diametrically opposed.

Case in point: Dan despises Ghost World, a film that ranks among my favorites of this century to date. We once engaged (along with various others) in a lengthy online debate about its sensibility, during the course of which Dan at one point wrote this:

Personally, I think Zwigoff, like Woody Allen, is too solipstic and self-satisfied to make a good movie about maturation. The progression of the Ghost World plot suggests to me a meditation on how the world makes life difficult for its few worthwhile beings. If Zwigoff really wanted to show Enid and Seymour putting aside their sense of superiority, he would have done better to include in the film some other attractive world view.

I bring this up not to relitigate Ghost World, obviously (though I still strenuously disagree with the above), but because Fourteen almost plays like Dan's compassionate rebuke of Zwigoff's film, even if he almost certainly didn't intend or even momentarily think of that. This, too, is a portrait of close female friends who drift apart, albeit for very different reasons and over a much longer period of time. Dan chooses not to signpost any of the leaps forward—months and years repeatedly pass within the void created by a simple cut, underlining the way that passing time can sneak up on you and major shifts in perception occur without fanfare. That's crucial to the progression of Mara's feelings toward Jo, the charismatic perpetual fuckup who gradually metamorphoses from best friend to beloved albatross to guilty reminder to inevitable casualty. Harsh judgment (self- and otherwise) takes place among the characters at key moments, but Fourteen itself maintains a clear-eyed distance, acknowledging Jo's despair and Mara's exhaustion as equally valid; at the same time, we're yoked to Mara throughout, which creates a fascinating tension as the years pass and her resolve hardens into what some (though not I) might consider heartlessness. Tallie Medel gives a courageously undemonstrative performance that's destined to be undervalued simply because she's working opposite a newcomer (unless you watch Chicago Med, apparently) named Norma Kuhling, who's utterly astonishing in what's admittedly the much flashier role. Kuhling nails all of Jo's outbursts, including the central agonized breakdown, but she also somehow manages to put a relaxed, naturalistic spin on Dan's dialogue, which still tends to sound very written in other actors' mouths (even Medel's). It's like hearing Mamet via Joe Mantegna.

After one viewing, I'm a little conflicted about Fourteen's ending, in part because it continues past what seemed to me like two perfect endings: (1) Mara telling Lorelai the Jo story (which I think would crush me were it the last thing in the movie); (2) Mara receiving the phone call and taking the news in stride. What follows the latter seems unnecessary, and includes a brief emotional shift that I strongly dislike (which I'll call Mara's Oskar Schindler moment), though the brevity and instant recovery do mollify me somewhat. I expressed these reservations to Dan, who explained his intention—not just regarding the ending, but the film as a whole. In particular, he pointed out something Jo tells Mara—it's the exchange about her eccentricities and anxiety vis-à-vis her identity—to which I'd paid little attention, but which Dan means to serve as a sort of philosophical lodestone. Not sure it'll make a difference, or even that I agree with Dan that Jo's denial is other than self-pitying bullshit, but any excuse to experience this quietly devastating duet a second time is okay by me.

[No U.S. distributor as of this writing, sorry. But The Unspeakable Act got released, so hopefully this will, too. Seems a bit more commercially accessible to me.]

[UPDATE: Grasshopper did in fact pick it up.]