Berlin Patrick Gamble

Berlin 2019: Fourteen review

★★★★☆

Fourteen, the follow-up to former Los Angeles Reader film critic Dan Sallitt’s incest drama The Unspeakable Act, is a subdued drama about a friendship ageing over time. A nuanced portrait of female camaraderie presented in all its messy complexity.

Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) have been best friends since they were 14. Mara is dependable; an aspiring writer who works during the day as a school aid and moonlights in the evenings as a tutor to underperforming kids. Jo, on the other hand, is unreliable, routinely getting fired from her job as a social worker and parasitically dependent on her friend for emotional support.

Neither of their lives are stable, with the only real constant their friendship. If Jo is struggling with the depression that has troubled her throughout adolescence, she’ll ring Mara, who’ll drop everything and head over to her flat. But Jo’s health is getting worse, and Mara finds herself forced to fulfil the role of a one-woman support network, with their ostensibly solicitous connection gradually revealed to be an increasingly suffocating attachment.

Sallit’s films have often been compared to those of Éric Rohmer; focused on characters who are severely repressed and inexpressive, and Fourteen is no different, yet behind its impassive veneer lies a filmmaker with a keen eye for the fineries of human interaction. Deceptively simple, the film oozes honesty and spontaneity, with an elliptical structure that sees the peripheral characters in Jo and Mara’s life drift in and out of view. The pair are sympathetic, yet annoyingly blasé, their entanglements mundane but also fascinating, with Sallitt capturing the unspoken moments of intense connection between the two as they muddle through life together.

This restrained mode necessitates strong performances. Medel, already familiar with Sallitt’s dialogue-heavy approach from her breakout role in The Unspeakable Act steers the film commendably, but it’s Kuhling who steals the show. She speaks in a seemingly confident, yet self-revising hurry, switching erratically between assertion and confession with her awkward body language, and the hysteric quiver under her voice quietly amplifying a cry-for-help timbre.

The camera quietly observes their shifting dynamic. When together, the pair are rarely outside the frame, with Sallitt using a series of creative staging techniques to express their dependence through clever composition. But even when they’re apart, the phone conversations between the two – invariably overheard from Mara’s perspective – place a large emphasis on the negative space between them, with Sallit intelligently drawing the viewer’s attention to the nuances of Mars’s physicality and the specificity of her every gesture. As the film proceeds, and the pair’s sisterly union begins to fall apart, these phone conversations become more frequent as the drama veers in an increasingly painful direction. Yet despite this, the film’s note of anxiety remains muffled throughout.

Rich with scenes of affection and reconciliation, the most charming thing about Fourteen is the degree to which Sallitt finds a balance between his own brand of independent filmmaking and the kind of French middle-class realism he’s clearly influenced by. The film’s dynamic performances and admirable lack of moralising leaves it straddling the line at which non-professional shrewdness and technical accomplishment meet. The result is a quietly radical film that centralise a friendship between two women without relying on histrionics or the interference of men, instead quietly observing the invisible building blocks of a relationship that forms out of nothing and disappears just as effortlessly.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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