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July 5, 2020

Film review: ‘Fourteen’ focuses on a friendship that starts to fade

Dan Sallitt's latest film emerges more interestingly during a pandemic, when small-scale movies about friendship seem more important

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Director Dan Sallitt is known for his micro-budget independent films, and his fourth is being streamed this summer after making the festival circuit in 2019. It’s titled “Fourteen,” and it made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival.

“Fourteen” tracks the friendship of two 20-something New Yorkers over a decade, as each has her ups and downs in relationships with men.

Mara (Tallie Medel, who also starred in Sallitt’s “The Unspeakable Act” in 2012) is the most stable of the two. She’s short, has sensible dark brown bangs and is a kindergarten teacher. Her best friend, Jo (Norma Kuhling), is tall and beautiful and capricious, and she has trouble holding a job.

Jo calls Mara at inopportune times, with pleas for help as the years go by. As it turns out Jo has mental health problems. Jo reveals much about the professionals that she has seen over the years: “You say something and their eyes glaze over and they’ve made up their mind — I’ve been watching them glaze over since I was 14” Hence the title of the movie.

Fourteen is also the point in middle school when Mara and Jo become friends. Mara, who was new to the school, says later in the film, that when she faced bullying from other girls, Jo was the only one who stood up for her. So the bond began back in middle school, and Mara has been trying to repay the favor ever since.



But at some point, you have to wonder when the favor has been paid. And that starts to become clear as Jo sinks more and more into mental illness and eventually, drugs.

Neither woman seems to be able to find lasting love with a man, although we see various relationships play out over the decade when the film takes place. At one point, Mara seems to have found a guy, but when she becomes pregnant, she decides to be a single mother.

Writer/director Sallitt never tries to explain these situations, but we see them through Mara’s eyes, not Jo’s. Jo is sort of like a friend who’s always a phone call away.

Throughout, their relationship, Mara and Jo remains platonic. And it’s unusual for a movie to focus so clearly on a friendship rather than love. But in an odd way, that’s what makes it interesting during a pandemic, when small-scale movies about friendship seem more important — and certainly more suitable for streaming than a big-budget action flick.

“Fourteen” is streaming at the Austin Film Society’s website, austinfilm.org, starting June 5. A portion of the streaming proceeds will help the society, which has shut down its theater on Middle Fiskville Road during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Fourteen”
Starring Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling
Running time: 94 minutes


Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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