Many of the most scarring breakups we suffer in life are not with lovers, but with friends: people we once trusted with our most closely guarded truths, reduced over the years to strangers, or more wrenchingly still, to polite occasional acquaintances. Yet we rarely refer to these breakups as such. We talk about “drifting apart” or “losing touch” or some other euphemism that makes the loss sound less severe, as if our friendships carry less weight than our romances. We belittle them, even, with phrases like “just friends,” as if the designation is somehow less complex. The unstinting marital drama is a genre unto itself; rarer are the films that scrutinize the progression of a platonic friendship with equivalent gravity and intricacy.
Dan Sallitt’s “Fourteen” is one: a wise, graceful but viciously felt study of middle-school best friends whose bond becomes a burden the further they recede into adulthood, it resorts neither to buddy-movie cliché nor melodramatic angst in portraying the ways we outgrow our friends, and they us. The stages of separation it documents are at once seismic and achingly mundane. Sallitt is an artist who’s comfortable with discomfort: “Fourteen” is the critic-turned-filmmaker’s first feature since 2012’s “The Unspeakable Act,” in which a brother-sister relationship veered into the kind of emotional territory people are loath to identify or discuss. His latest, though it trades less in taboos, is likewise preoccupied with unruly feelings and relationships of the type people would prefer to regard as simple.
“You’re kind of an odd couple,” a mutual college acquaintance observes of Mara (Tallie Medel, also Sallitt’s lead in “The Unspeakable Act”) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), not masking his surprise that their friendship has endured into full-blown adulthood. On the surface, you see what he means, beginning with the visual contrast between Mara — diminutive, dark-bobbed and stern-faced — and willowy, wavy-haired boho blonde Jo. One is grounded and sensible, the other impulsive and unreliable: You’ll guess which is which. Yet it doesn’t take long to see the shared vulnerabilities and protective instincts that bind them, which has extended into their mutually care-based professions: Mara is a kindergarten teacher and Jo a social worker, though the former holds down her job rather more solidly, as the latter is unmoored by bouts of mental illness.
In girlhood, it was Jo who rescued Mara from school bullies; in their twenties, it’s Mara who helps hold her friend’s fragile life together, though it’s a task to which she feels less equal as the years pass. Sallitt shows us the friendship from Mara’s point of view only, as Jo whirls into and out of her life at erratic intervals. Acting as his own editor, the director beautifully builds the chronological ellipses and elisions in the relationship into the film’s own halting, glitching but steadily linear structure. Jo thus becomes an increasingly unknowable, inconsistent presence in the viewer’s and protagonist’s eyes alike. As well as a sensitive evocation of the cruel, easily misunderstood irregularities of mental health, “Fourteen” gets the paradox of platonic friendship in a way few buddy pictures do: the growing, disorienting realization that even your closest friend is a stranger when you’re not around.
Medel and Kuhling, both superb, are as perfectly mismatched as their characters. The former’s watchful, contained screen presence gives us a firm, anchoring perspective that starts to feel cramped and windblown by the latter’s rangy, room-consuming physicality. It’s as easy to see the magnetic connection between the two as the ways in which their differing energies, with the best will in the world, grow exhausted and incompatible together.
Christopher Messina’s clean, acute cinematography often fixates on negative space between the two, or the absent void when one is speaking off-camera, visually imposing the distance they need from each other. Occasional, surprising long takes give the film oxygen, peaking with an unbroken, oddly transfixing shot tracking a character’s commute from train station to leafy suburban home in upstate New York: “Fourteen” is a relationship drama that piquantly chooses its moments of aloneness.
On digital release following an extensive 2019 festival run, “Fourteen” would likely have seen minimal theatrical play under normal circumstances. The film’s dialogue-driven narrative intimacy and limpid, fuss-free lensing make it eminently streaming-friendly, though there’s airy cinematic scope to its examination of an unstable relationship visited across the course of several years: At a nimble 94 minutes, it captures both the elasticity and the relentlessness of time passing, dragging people along, and then apart, in its current.