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About Mental Health

“Fourteen” touches on several aspects of life that you don’t often see dramatized. It’s the story of two friends, who met in middle school and have remained close into adulthood. It’s about the nature of that bond, and it’s also about what happens when one of those friends is mentally ill.

Tallie Medel (left) and Norma Kuhling are longtime friends who cope with mental illness in “Fourteen.” Photo: Christopher MessinaTallie Medel and Norma Kuhling in “Fourteen.”

But the mental illness presented in “Fourteen,” available to stream through Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater’s Alamo at Home starting Friday, May 15, is not mental illness as usually seen in movies. In movies, mental illness is acute, profound and transient. But in here, as is often the case in life, mental illness is like an ongoing low-grade fever of unhappiness, with occasional spikes. Jo, in “Fourteen,” isn’t crazy, just miserable, with a life that keeps almost adding up but never quite does.

I hope casting agents and other industry types see “Fourteen,” because I want them to see Norma Kuhling (of the NBC series “Chicago Med”), who plays Jo. She takes this strong role, by writer-director Dan Sallitt, and hits it exactly right.

As played by Kuhling, Jo is brilliant, talented, poised and the most interesting person in every room she enters. There’s nothing off about her, nothing weird or odd. She just can’t seem to live with herself. She has no quiet place inside. It’s as if the second she sits still, something within her goes on the attack — against herself.

In a less well-made movie, the audience, out of concern for Mara, would begin to see Jo as a drag on Mara’s existence. Instead, seeing Jo as Mara sees her, we recognize Jo as a marvelous and frustrating person, clearly just one slight mental adjustment away from having a dazzling, rewarding life. Mara would like to fix her, and so would we.

Obviously, the success of a movie such as this depends on our believing in the interaction of the two women, that the friendship is real. The director builds that, not all in one scene, but confidently, from moment to moment. These middle school friendships are interesting because they run very deep, even though people change as they get older. If Jo and Mara met as adults, they might not have connected, but instead they met as kids and are connected for life.

The movie follows both women over the course of about 10 years. (The title, “Fourteen,” refers to the age at which Jo began to become unhappy.) We see them through a succession of men and in varying circumstances. The movie doesn’t announce the shifts in time, from scene to scene, we just follow along.

My one criticism of the movie is that I’m not crazy about the ending. I can’t go into detail, but I wanted something more dramatic. Perhaps I wanted something more like a movie, and “Fourteen” is a movie that tries not to be like a movie. Still, I wanted more. Or something else.

In any case, if you see “Fourteen,” tell me what you thought of the ending. I’d be curious to hear some other reactions.


“Fourteen”: Drama. Starring Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling. Directed by Dan Sallitt. (Unrated. 94 minutes. Available for streaming through various theaters, including Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater, via grasshopperfilm.com.)
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