Fourteen begins when its characters are in their 20s, and only moves forward in time from there. The cuts between scenes come to represent jumps of weeks, months, or years in the life of New Yorkers Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling). Writer-director Dan Sallitt quickly trains his audience to follow along with these unannounced transitions; after 10 or 15 minutes, the movie’s rhythm establishes itself and the skips ahead become intuitive. An even neater trick, though, is how Sallitt gradually incorporates information that might normally come from flashbacks without ever actually flashing back. Despite the directness of his title, it takes a while to fully understand that Mara and Jo have been friends since they were that age—or longer, even, given that Mara eventually supplies a middle-school origin story. Their years-long bond forms far before Fourteen begins, and the movie primarily captures a protracted drifting apart as their lives head in different directions. Yet it still manages to fill in backstory without resorting to leaden exposition.
Mara and Jo’s teenage years aren’t the only crucial developments Sallitt keeps off camera. For the better part of an hour, truly dramatic confrontations happen out of sight, with hook-ups, break-ups, hirings, firings, and hospital visits glimpsed primarily as matter-of-fact aftermath. The remaining action is often intentionally diffused. For example, in a scene where Jo makes an urgent phone call to Mara, begging her to cancel family plans and tend to her latest disaster instead, Sallitt stays on Mara’s side of the line, unwavering from the movie’s strict adherence to her point of view. When Mara shows up at Jo’s apartment as requested, Jo’s sort-of boyfriend informs her that she has fallen asleep. Jo doesn’t actually appear in the sequence at all.
Though similar absences from Mara’s life help define Jo’s character, additional details do emerge. She is a social worker, chronically late to work and behind in her graduate degree. She complains incessantly and pointlessly about having to smoke cigarettes outside, in brave defiance of nearly two decades’ worth of New York social norms. And she has a chip on her shoulder about doctors; though Mara is not one (she’s a teacher and writer), her sympathy with that profession is clear in her more analytical approach to Jo’s troubles. Mara is a low-key problem solver, expressing her loyalty by offering to walk her friend through the kind of paperwork Jo clearly tends to blow off. Mara’s frustration with her irresponsible friend is foregrounded, but Sallitt also reveals layers of pain beneath Jo’s blasé flakiness.
Medel and Kuhling both give remarkably even-keeled performances, making their differences clear without a lot of voice-raising; a moment that requires Medel to stamp her foot in anger is amusingly unconvincing, whether by performance or thematic design. The question of intentionality comes up again whenever the various men in Jo and Mara’s lives have to speak up. While Medel and Kuhling find the naturalism and nuance in Sallitt’s writing, the guys are all vaguely monotone, like they’re still feeling out their lines at a table read. Is this supposed to signal their impermanence in the story, or is it the byproduct of actors needing to create characters in what may have been a few days or less of shooting on a low-budget indie?
Early in the movie, Mara has dinner with a friend who has read one of her short stories, which he describes as “very quiet,” without a lot of “frills to the writing.” The same could be said of Sallitt’s work, which shares a sense of specificity with Noah Baumbach or Lena Dunham (this may be the first feature film to ever name-drop the hip online literary magazine Electric Literature) but sometimes takes on a monkish quality, with long static shots and tendency to isolate characters in the frame whenever they’re having even a mildly contentious conversation. Even the movie’s stylistic flexes are reserved to the point of fussiness: Sallitt takes a full minute to observe the Katonah train station on New York’s Metro North from a distant, fixed vantage, before finally finding and following Mara as she leaves the platform and makes her away across the parking lot.
Extended, unblinking studies of Mara arriving at or leaving a particular location occur twice more in the film. These shots are compelling on their own; taken together, they sometimes feel like a poor substitute for the fullness of time that the movie struggles to convey, despite its forward momentum. Good as the leads are, they’re required to play a decade-plus of aging through a variety of major life events—an emotional challenge that the film sometimes treats as a formal one. Medel in particular is stymied by a scene of catharsis that Sallitt curtails so abruptly that it’s once again hard to tell whether the performance didn’t hit the required mark or if he’s simply more concerned with the characters’ framework than the characters themselves.
If Fourteen assumes a dutiful inevitability as it approaches its end, that doesn’t undermine its best moments, like a fluid bit of staging where Jo ducks into a bakery during a walk-and-talk with Mara, buying a brownie before her friend even realizes where she’s gone. Sallitt’s refusal to fully explain his characters is the movie’s salvation: “There’s no thing that happened,” Jo says at one point as she despairs for her mental state. Life is a series of accumulations, and Fourteen is smart about how friendships can, in a strange way, deepen even as they dissolve.