Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 16, 2020 8:35 pm 
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The dissolution of a friendship and divergence of two lives

It goes back all the way to middle school, and eventually we learn why Mara is so loyal, but we observe the relationship of these two women, Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) from about age twenty to thirty, moving forward through the years in vignettes, with never a flashback.

There is a purity in this approach. It must be said, though, that the film avoids most of the hard stuff, the most extreme moments, which are only talked about. Dan Sallitt, who wrote and directed, also edited. His construction is carefully considered. The presentation is curiously detached in this tale of two women and their diverging paths, more impressive than moving, a tour de force in a modern style. There is much to admire here even for those, like me, who are dissatisfied. There's an irony in the fact that this writer-director may gain more attention from Fourteen than his four previous films, and yet, thanks go the pandemic, it has gone directly to pay-for-view. It was released digitally on Friday, May 15, 2020 on Grasshopper Film. You may say it's on view now.

The numerical title shows we're counting, moving through a series of moments depicted in many short scenes - well over two dozen - that grow further apart in time as they progress and Mara and Jo are less immediately involved with each other. We must guess the exact intervals and assess the process taking place. It's the slow and steady dissolution of a very faithful friendship that exerts increasingly difficult pressure. One way to tell such a story would be to start with the roles reversed, and have the more accomplished one start to fail and crumble. But here actually the way things are going to go is clear to the dimmest analyst of character from the first couple of scenes. Nonetheless how things play out is interesting to watch, like a slow-motion car wreck.

The overall structural aspects are perhaps more interesting than the specifics of these people or their doings. How short the scenes are and how uninteresting most of their men both undermine our interest. Reactions to Sallitt's feature range from Richard Brody's "an exaltation" and "a volcano of passion," down to "a tedious story" that's "bland" and "meaninglessly dull" (Nick Allen of - who yet appreciated the acting, editing, and forward-jumping time skips).*

The main friend, the one whose point of view is favored, is the reliable one, Mara, who sticks with her work as a teacher and eventually finds a steady boyfriend in mild software developer Adam (C. Mason Wells). The sexy, prettier, taller, blonde, unreliable, demanding one is Jo), who continually loses her social work jobs, changes men often, smokes, does drugs, and has psychological problems that she hides and yet it's suggested may be beyond the reach of therapy and antidepressants. Why? And how is this known? It's not so clear. Jo keeps calling on Mara to help, even though Mara is exasperated by this and they are drifting apart.

Most of the scenes are set in New York in rooms or at clubs or on the street. The camera maintains a distance, avoiding closeups, and at one point even lingers for minutes high up over the Katonah station on New York's Metro North line as Mara comes to visit Jo when she's with her mother after a breakdown.

Another time Jo is with an older man, in contrast to the usual ones both women see, who seem colorless. This one is solid, makes dinner, drinks scotch, but has never smoked cigarettes or dope. He thanks Mara for supporting Jo all these years and hopes she will go on doing so. Does Jo need a solid caretaker like this? Somehow when she whispers to Mara that he's "amazing in bed" that does not inspire confidence. Is this older man a place marker for the filmmakers's own point of view, since he was born in 1955?

There is an energy in the constant changes of scene. What next? It's like a season of "Girls," greatly speeded up, but without the fun stuff or Adam Driver. I cannot recommend this movie. But in its way it is well done, and structurally, it's fresh. Richard Brody does some wonderful writing about films, and I'm very grateful for him. But he goes overboard sometimes, as no doubt do we all.

Fourteen, 94 mins., debuted at Berlin Feb. 2019, and ran in twenty other international festivals. Its streaming release was in both the US and Canada May 15, 2020. Metascore was 77%, now 79%..
*It is midway in Mike D'Angelo's 2019 Top Ten List. He gives it a (for him) very high 73/100. Metascore 79.

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