'Fourteen': Film Review | Berlinale 2019

Fourteen Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival- Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Sensitive study of emotional turmoil, close-up and from a distance.

Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling star in NYC critic/filmmaker Dan Sallitt's first feature in seven years, premiering at the German behemoth.

Two outstanding performances anchor critic/filmmaker Dan Sallitt's fourth feature Fourteen, which elliptically chronicles the final years in a long-standing friendship between two contrasting young women. Bowing in the Berlinale's Forum, this New York low-budgeter — featuring several of the city's notable critics and curators in supporting roles — should have a subsequent career similar to that of Sallitt's previous outing The Unspeakable Act (2012): widespread festival play, limited urban-U.S. arthouse release.

Both films star Tallie Medel, a diminutive Alaskan actress-dancer with Alita-like eyes, whose special qualities have so far been underutilized by American cinema. That may change thanks to Sallitt's sensitively-handled study of platonic love and the devastating impact of mental illness, while it should also propel lanky, drawling knockout Norma Kuhling — a relative newcomer who has something of a young Jessica Lange about her — to higher-profile roles.

On paper, Kuhling has the showier part: her bohemian, hedonistic Jo has experienced mental volatility since her mid-teens (hence the title) and as the film begins she's struggling to keep her job as a social-worker. Her closest pal since Jo saved her from a bullying situation in middle-school, level-headed, practical-minded kindergarten teacher Mara is much more "together," often helping Jo out with basic tasks such as the completion of bureaucratic forms. They're like the two facets of Diane Keaton in Looking For Mr Goodbar, split into two different bodies.

Getting fired sends Jo into one of her periodic spirals of decline, exacerbated by drink and drugs. Several dramatic incidents follow. But Sallitt deliberately keeps these off-screen — the audience experiences events through Mara's eyes, and apart from one emotional confrontation around the hour mark the smart, charismatic Jo we see is hard to square with the self-destructive, potentially violent person she evidently becomes when the cameras aren't around.

Kuhling nevertheless has sufficient space to develop a three-dimensional characterization of a deeply troubled person seemingly beyond the help of medication or psychiatric care (The Unspeakable Act functioned on one level as a paean to psychiatry). Medel, seldom off-screen, turns in a marvelous, utterly engaging portrait of an intelligent, caring person slowly stretched to breaking point. 

Again performing his own editing duties, Sallitt can elide months and years in a single cut; this can result in counterproductive disorientation. He relies mainly on dialogue-heavy scenes, defining his characters more by what they say than what they do. These talky sections are punctuated by leisurely observational interludes where cinematographer Christopher Messina presents mundane moments from an extreme distance, the dialogue dialed down to be barely audible.

This technique, and the novelistic time-eliding structure, gives Fourteen an unsettled, halting rhythm that works against the development of emotional momentum across Jo and Mara's arcs. There's one such "observational" sequence around the 40-minute mark, showing the leafy train station in Jo and Mara's native, affluent Westchester County, which stretches on for several minutes. The picture grinds to a complete halt: it feels like something from a James Benning experimental landscape-film, plopped down into the middle of a talk-heavy New York indie.

Production company: Static Productions
Cast: Tallie Medel, Norma Kuhling, C. Mason Wells, Dylan McCormick, Kolyn Brown
Director / Screenwriter / Editor: Dan Sallitt
Producers: Caitlin Mae Burke, Graham Swon
Cinematographer: Christopher Messina
Production designer: Grace Sloan
Venue: Berlinale (Forum)
Sales: Static Productions, New York (caitlinmae@gmail.com)
In English
No Rating, 94 minutes