One of the few upsides to our current situation is additional exposure for the kind of smaller movies that would normally get lost in the shuffle of summer releases. Without big studio pictures dominating the conversation, there’s more room for films like “Fourteen,” writer-director Dan Sallitt’s devastating drama that begins streaming this week at the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room. Spanning something like a decade in the lives of two young women who slowly grow apart, it’s a subdued story told through ellipses and accumulated detail. Modest in means but not ambition, the movie sneaks up on you.
Tallie Medel stars as Mara, a sensible 20-something working as a teacher’s assistant in New York City. She’s the kind of girl who tends to disappear into the background of her own conversations, shy and uncertain to the point where when a guy asks her out to dinner she’s still not sure if it’s a date. Mara appears perfectly comfortable taking a backseat to her best friend Jo (Norma Kuhling), a statuesque beauty and depressive basket case. We can see that this well-worn dynamic has been in place since they met back in middle school, with Mara called upon at all hours to clean up after Jo’s constant crises. But now that they’re adults out in the real world, it’s starting to get a little old.
In the movies, people tend to stay friends forever, and if they do part ways it’s often because of some big, melodramatic falling out that involves slamming doors and noisy proclamations. But life doesn’t really work that way, and most friendships don’t end so much as they just fade away. As you get older people disappear from your life so gradually sometimes you don’t even notice until they’re gone, and “Fourteen” is a movie about a close friendship’s slow dissolve over years that seem to pass in a blink.
Borrowing an editing technique from director Maurice Pialat’s great 1972 breakup saga “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” Sallitt leaves unspecified gaps of time between scenes. Initially this can be disorienting, but you soon steady yourself and start combing for context clues. This isn’t the kind of movie where people say stuff they already know out loud for the benefit of the audience, but Sallitt’s screenplay is savvy enough to leave breadcrumb trails of all the information we need in these seemingly uninflected conversations. (You can keep track of the time by Jo’s ever-changing boyfriends, or the way these apartments get bigger and nicer as the characters get older, with crowded, drunken parties giving way to more civilized sit-down dinners.)
The film has the drift of day-to-day life, with scenes that feel aimless in the moment revealing themselves as crucial in retrospect. It’s a lot more carefully structured than it appears, with Mara steadily working her way up the ladder of a public education career while Jo keeps getting fired from one job after another, going on and off her medication with maddening irregularity. “Fourteen” takes its title from the age when Jo remembers her mental illness manifesting itself, and the film captures the ebbs and flows of depression, as well as the insidious way it wears on loved ones.
There’s a crucial shot about a third of the way through the movie, during which Sallitt holds the camera still on the exterior of a Metro-North train station for almost three minutes before we find Mara in the frame and begin following her again. It’s a gutsy, what-am-I-looking-at-here moment that works as a recalibration. Up until then, the movie has been about Mara in relationship to Jo, cleaning up the chaos created by her friend. But after the train station, we start spending more time with the character on her own, watching Mara grow up and come into herself in ways she couldn’t with Jo sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
These actresses are extraordinary. Kuhling captures the charisma of the self-destructive, capably conveying not just the allure but also how draining such a personality can be. Medel is marvelous in the less showy role. She’s in just about every shot and holds the film’s calmly observant, emotional center. Their conversational rhythms have the easy comfort of longtime familiars, but grow more distant and formal as the years take their toll. There are a lot of heartbreaking scenes in “Fourteen,” but maybe the toughest one for me was watching these two smiling politely after a chance encounter on the street and going through the motions of making plans neither has any interest in following up.
“Fourteen” was shot on a shoestring over the course of two years, but the budgetary seams seldom show. Save for some stiff and unconvincing turns by the various boyfriends, it’s more polished than pictures I’ve seen made for 10 times the cost. Sallitt favors long takes with a locked-down camera, the visuals matching the movie’s muted tone. He disrupts it just once near the end for a moment of emotional release that I’m still not sure about. It’s the one scene that reminded me I was watching a movie, while the rest of “Fourteen” feels like real life.
“Fourteen” begins streaming Friday, May 15 at the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.