Funeral for a Friendship

By Poulomi Das

© Christopher Messina

There is a scene late into Dan Salitt’s Berlinale Forum entry FOURTEEN (USA) where the film’s lead, Mara (Tallie Medel), recounts a bedtime story to her daughter, familiarising her with the origin story of her friendship with Jo (Norma Kuhling). Beyond its innate charm, the scene is particularly revealing in how it tenders a clue for Mara’s devoted – even at the cost of almost being self-destructive – obligation to Jo during the prime of their friendship, a few years ago.

It is as if FOURTEEN insists that the audience contemplate on two threads of a similar thought: Is it possible to be emancipated in an intense friendship? And, is it selfish for someone to prioritise self-preservation over a friend’s needs? Mara would have been grappling with these questions sooner had she not been emotionally babysitting Jo (Norma Kuhling), her volatile and self-absorbed best friend for over a decade. Mara’s functional life – she is financially secure, good at her job, and exudes warmth – exists to mainly dilute the dysfunctionality crowding Jo’s days.

Perhaps that is why the film’s most tender moment sneakily arrives in one of its final scenes. At 12:40 am on an uneventful night, Jo lands up outside Mara’s door after flaking out on her hours ago. Even as Jo breaks down in front of Mara, demanding affection, she recognises Mara’s right to preserve herself in what seems like the first time during their friendship. “Should you be drinking this beer?” she asks her when Mara casually announces her pregnancy minutes after lashing out at Jo’s selfishness – aware that Jo’s propensity to become the centre of attention might reduce her life-altering announcement to a footnote. But in that affecting exchange, Jo infuses her concern with a sentimentality that allows Mara the luxury of being the friend who is cared for instead of being the one who perennially does the caring.

Returning to filmmaking after seven years, FOURTEEN’s director, writer, and editor, Salitt (THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT, 2012) is preoccupied with painting a universal portrait of an intimate although emotionally unbalanced friendship and its aftermath. In fact, by taking an elliptical approach to uncovering the penultimate years of friendship between these two women, he unspools the collateral casualty of time: the disintegration of desire to invest yourself in a friendship.

For the most part, FOURTEEN achieves in making the audience sense – and connect with – the distance creeping up between Mara and Jo, riding on the back of existentialist writing, a curious gaze that strives to understand female friendships instead of defining them, and two extraordinary lead performances that retain their world-weariness. The narrative’s unpredictable jumps while unfolding time – its pace increases in the latter half – wears the changes in Mara’s life on its sleeves.

Although by the end, it is impossible to not question the lack of physical intimacy between Mara and Jo in FOURTEEN (they make physical contact just once during the film’s runtime). Even if the idea was to mine its absence to imply that Mara and Jo’s friendship was long over before its death became apparent, the simmering hesitation and tension in their bond might have benefitted from stunted physical awkwardness. Yet it gains from its ability to fully realise the arc of Mara’s emancipation by playing it out in a pace that frustratingly resembles quotidian life: It takes Mara 10 years to discern that it’s impossible to be there for anyone else if you aren’t there for yourself first.