Arrested development is a cinematic concept built entirely upon a contradiction. Our enjoyment of the destructive behaviour is predicated on a sense of schadenfreude, that this could in no way happen to us, while simultaneously, it offers the viewer the fantasy of living that way. Todd Phillips’ entire career has been predicated on the ability to provide a gawking vacuum for human zoo, while simultaneously lacing it with a twinge of jealousy at the very idea of getting to live that debaucherously.
There’s been a recent tendency of American Independent Cinema to try and capture this ideal in a different manner from the norm. Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman attempted to crank the pace and empathy for their characters. On the other end of the spectrum, Joel Potrykus attempted to detach as much as possible from his characters, leaving our intended projection as ambiguous as possible.
If these are the two oppositional approaches, then Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen likely exists somewhere in the in-between. This is Sallit’s seven years in the making return to feature filmmaking, the first picture he’s directed since 2012’s The Unspeakable Act. Here, he’s exploring the dynamic between two long-time friends Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling). The former attempts to precariously navigate the many possibly pitfall of her early professional career, while the later bounces between job and partners. It’s an obvious ying/yang relationship. Jo depends on Mara, while Mara depends on Jo’s dependence.
Until she begins to no longer depend on said dependence. Fourteen’s intervention into the genre here is to situate the film from the perspective of the exasperated outsiders, or those dealing with said instances of suspended adulthood. This is Mara’s story more than it is Jo’s, A story about how we grow apart from those who just can’t do it anymore.
Sallitt’s framing partially contributes to this. Each shot is artfully composed, and each scene edited to its specific needs. Some scenes play out in an Ozu-esque fashion, ripe with head on shots and little editing. Others, bounce back and forth in your traditional shot-reverse-shot manner. But it’s simultaneously sublet beyond belief. Sallitt’s hardcore cinephilia is well-documented, as is his penchant for the works of Eric Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo. These influences shine through in the films lack of ostentatiousness.
The film is also tremendously elliptical. Fourteen temporally jumps great stretches in time, and demands that the viewer keep up with the changes. It’s an arresting effect, and one that makes this a fascinating watch. Jobs will have changed, as will partners, and our only clue is to be found within the conversations between Mara and Jo.
This sense of discovery extends to the characters themselves. One emblematic scene features Mara and Jo’s new boyfriend packing up some leftovers for her to take home from dinner. Jo calls out from the other room that she’s in dire need of a cigarette. Mara asks if Jo can wait for her so they can walk out together, a request that seems to exasperate Jo and is ultimately denied. The boyfriend remarks it’s not just him that Jo is impatient with. It’s a scene that comprises maybe three shots, yet, communicates volumes about its characters.
Fourteen is delightfully enjoyable. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t seem to get made with any sort of frequency now that the mumble core boom has ended. There’s a spirit of independent filmmaking here, a testament to the compelling stories we can tell with a camera and some friends.