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Norma Kuhling stars as Jo in Dan Sallitt's Fourteen.Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

  • Fourteen
  • Written and directed by Dan Sallitt
  • Starring Tallie Medel, Norma Kuhling and C. Mason Wells
  • Classification N/A; 94 minutes


3 out of 4 stars

It is either the best or worst time to be an independent filmmaker. Sure, production is shut down and theatres are shuttered – and when the world does start running again, indie projects will be entering a market of unprecedented financial restraint and strategic tumult. But most of the major studios are keeping their conversation-hogging movies on the shelf, leaving just enough room for low-budget fare to enjoy a brief, tiny second in the spotlight.

To that end, Dan Sallitt’s impressive but extremely low-fi film Fourteen should reap the backward benefits of the moment. Chronicling the decade-long dissolution of a friendship between two young women, Fourteen is a film that would normally be completely lost in the cultural conversation – swallowed up even in the insular art-house realm. Which would be unfortunate, given that Sallitt has accomplished something sincere and thoughtful here, a twin character study that is as curious about relationships as it is about the cinematic form.

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The film examines the dissolution of the friendship between Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo.Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

When Sallitt first introduces us to Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), the friends seem perfectly matched – the stable and career-minded writer/daycare worker Mara leans on the carefree impulsivity of sometimes social-worker Jo to offset the anxiety of being a young adult in New York. Jo, meanwhile, finds a sympathetic shoulder in Mara to lean against when her own struggles become too much (which is often).

The two women commiserate, gossip, cycle through suitors, and then come up against their own, and each other’s, limitations – with Sallitt capturing it all in a beguilingly elliptical fashion, sometimes jumping months or years with a single cut. At other times, the director stops all narrative momentum to ponder the day-to-day life of a single setting, turning Mara and Jo’s tale into just one of many possibilities worth exploring in the filmmaker’s version of New York. The film’s rhythm might sound jarring on paper, but Fourteen is more a work of structural playfulness and experimentation than gimmicky manipulation.

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Medel seems to pour her entire self into the exasperated persona of Mara, writes Barry Hertz.Courtesy of Grasshopper Film

The performances, however, edge toward playfulness in the entirely wrong way, with amateur being the through-line for everyone onscreen but Medel and Kuhling. Those two leads are quietly powerful in their own ways, with Kuhling adding layers and history to what seems like a Greta Gerwig spin on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Medel pouring what seems like her entire self into Mara’s exasperated persona. But Sallitt, a long-time fixture of New York’s indie cinema scene thanks to both his filmmaking and his criticism, stacks a good deal of his cast with nonactor friends and lets them flail.

Still, Sallitt is grasping for something profound here – a portrait of friendship seen both up-close and from a distance. Fourteen may ultimately be just that – a grasp – but it is worth reaching out for all the same.

Fourteen is available to rent digitally via VIFF at Home, with half the box-office proceeds going directly to the Vancouver cinema’s operations and staff

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