Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s another revenue-sharing idea during the shuttered season. Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen will “open” this weekend. You can watch it via the Grand Illusion, and part of the proceeds go thataway.
You might also check for Sallitt’s previous work, which can be found, naturally, at Scarecrow. A New York cineaste-filmmaker, Sallitt makes micro-budgeted movies that create a very particular spell. His previous feature, 2013’s The Unspeakable Act, was one of the best of its year. I have a feeling Fourteen might end up as one of 2020’s best.
So much of moviemaking is the art of selection—what goes in, what gets left out—and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen is a gem of that art. The film depicts a few years in the adult lives of two longtime friends, the supremely organized and responsible Mara (Tallie Medel) and the unstable Jo (Norma Kuhling). Because there’s a time span involved, it’s all the more important that whatever ends up onscreen over the course of 94 minutes must count.
And it does count, vividly. Sometimes Sallitt chooses to show the aftermath of a big event, sometimes a turning point. It isn’t until late in the film—and the delay is another part of the way “selection” matters—that Jo gets a big scene that perhaps explains a little about her character; a few scenes and a few years after that, Mara has a scene that goes to the heart of their friendship. Putting these kinds of revelations off is not just a shrewd dramatic decision that builds suspense; it’s a crucial part of making the audience involved in the sense of mystery that lurks within a story of friendship.
The question as we watch Fourteen unfold is, Why are these two friends? We see how different they are from each other, and the amusing disparity in their physical appearance—of Laurel and Hardy proportions, with Mara a tiny brunette and Jo a willowy blonde—reminds of this every time they walk together down a Brooklyn sidewalk. The friendship is unequal, and perhaps, if we were clinical about it, unhealthy; Mara obviously gives more, and Jo is a taker. And yet we don’t doubt for a moment that there is something fierce about this friendship, if inexplicable. I happened to re-watch Sideways recently, and was reminded that the issue at the heart of that film is friendship, the kind that might look unfathomable to the outside, and even sometimes to the friends themselves. And yet there it is.
That rich mystery makes Fourteen simmer, and the two actresses are excellent (Medel starred in Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act). This is also a wonderful New York film, all the more so for not ladling on the Sinatra sentiment. You feel like you’re seeing a place from the inside, a place where an encounter in an apartment stairwell is followed by drinks in a bar and you somehow sense that the geography of a character’s night journey through the borough makes sense. When Sallitt holds for a very long shot of a Metro station in Westchester County, where one character will alight for a visit, it feels like the marking of a transition from one universe to another, in an almost mythological way.
The movie appreciates people and places. There are times when Sallitt seems to be flirting with melodrama, which, on the face of it, would not sit well with the more laconic minimalism of the overall feel. But the mood holds: If there’s a report that Jo has a knife out and may be acting erratically, the threat will be dissipated by an invitation to go get ice cream; if Mara finally lets go with a few sobs, she’ll turn right around and apologize for making a spectacle of herself. That’s true to character, which this moving look at the mysteries of friendship has in abundance.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.