Friday, June 12, 2020

Best Friends

Fourteen (2019) - Sallitt
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Former film critic Dan Sallitt's latest, Fourteen, is an absorbing observation of a lifelong friendship of two women as they struggle through relationships, careers and life. This finely tuned, exceptionally written and superbly acted work is a thing of a beauty. It concerns Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling), who have been friends since middle school. They are both in late 20 early 30ish, treading edges of their middle class existence in New York precariously. Mara is a school aid, working on her Masters in education to get a permanent teaching position and Jo is a social worker. As a New Yorker who struggled in my twenties and thirties, their lives are immediately relatable. Mara is a responsible one, Jo is a hot mess. This also, depending on where you fall in the spectrum, completely relatable and have known a friend like Mara or Jo. Naturally, it's Mara who's there whenever Jo is in trouble and needs support. Jo, who has questionable work ethics, possible addiction problems, fucks up a lot at the job and always in need of another. They both are not lucky in romance. Blonde and pretty, Jo attracts a lot of men in her life, but they one way or another realize that she is trouble and end up leaving. Mara is dating on and off bookish programmer Adam (C. Mason Wells) but see other men as well. All their conversations are all natural and go from one subject to another like real life conversation among close friends.

But as Mara slowly settles in her life, Jo's losing a grip on it. It's gotten bad that even the staffing agency wouldn't return her call. She threatens one of her boyfriends with a knife and the incident pushes him to call Mara in the middle of the night. Jo also ends up hospitalized and Mara has to visit her in her parents house on Long Island as she recuperates.

Time passes us by. Life comes at you fast. However we try to care for each other, adulting means less time for your friends. Sallitt is fully aware of this. We can't be there for our best friends 24/7. Is fourteen/hitting puberty the end of all the fun in life? Are we just carrying out a death sentence after that? Mara gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl named Lorelei. Jo promises to come and meet her. We don't get to see their encounter, like many events in their lives in the film, until at Jo's funeral. With astonishingly economical edits, Sallitt let us witness the passage of time without missing a beat. With his extremely slim and straightforward filmmaking, Sallitt accomplishes something that is both deeply poignant and beautiful. One of the year's best films so far.

Let’s Get Physical

Aviva (2020) - Yakin

aviva-02 It seems dance movies are in vogue again as of late, with Gaspar Noé's Climax, Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria, Levan Akin's And Then We Danced and Luka Dhont's Girl, among others. Writer/director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans)'s new film Aviva is a stunning new vision about gender fluidity, in close collaboration with dancer/choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith.

The film starts with Eden, or a part of Eden, played by Smith, in bed and naked, directly looking at the camera, telling us she is indeed playing a part in a movie we are watching. She states the movie is written by a man, and for all intended purposes, she is playing a man named Eden (also played by Tyler Philips). She says it's about her best friend, Aviva. Aviva also is played by a woman (Zina Zinchenko) and a man (Or Schraiber). Confused yet? Yakin plays around with our society's perception of the typical man/woman dichotomy and polysexuality within us all, in an exuberant, sensual, free form filmmaking with the help of the all-professional dancer cast.

Eden (Philips) is a New Yorker recovering from a devastating breakup. He is introduced to Aviva (Zinchenko), an ambitious Parisienne by a mutual friend in Europe. They start their email correspondences and hit it off and they both feel that they are a great match. Aviva takes a leap of faith and decides to come to New York and meet Eden. He is happy about the news of finally meeting Aviva in person, but his expectations are so high, he is somehow afraid of disappointing her or himself.

Whether it was social conditioning, or his preconceived notion, Eden seems to be regarding women not being equal to men. Through the flashbacks of their childhood, we get to see Eden's deep seeded distrust and antagonism toward his feminine side. Can his best friend be a girl? Are all women sexual objects like in porn he incessantly watches?

After they get together, and Aviva decides to permanently move to the US, Eden has a hard time truly connecting with her. He avoids eye contacts while having sex with her, and he'd rather hang out with his buddies at the bar by himself than inviting her in to the fold.

At the same time, with the male part of Aviva (Schraiber), Eden has great time sexually, even though he feels ambivalent about not being on top. In order for Aviva to stay in the US, they have to get married and after a considerable persuasion from his feminine side (Smith), Eden reluctantly marries her. Aviva pursues her ambitions in being a film director and starts exercising her creativity.

If the above description of Aviva's plot is a little melodramatic, that's because it is. The film's strength lies in its daring physicality and energy. To be honest, even though there are plenty of beautifully choreographed dance scenes in the backdrop of New York and Paris streets, in bars and empty warehouse spaces, I still wanted less talking but more dancing. It could've been a little more abstract just seeing graceful human bodies moving in close-up and let them convey the all the meaning.

Using 2 compact, highly mobile Canon C300 high-resolution cameras, Yakin succeeds in capturing those moves in fluid motion. Sensationally choreographed, Smith and co.’s dance interpretations of the push and pull of gender politics, heartache and loneliness, triumphs and soul searching that reside within all of us are all exhilarating to watch and at times, extremely moving.

The traditional notion of gender roles is still a hard concept to let go for many, because of centuries of social conditioning. The dominance of male gaze in mainstream media is well-documented facts. Male nudity, depiction of nude bodies and gay sex are still very much taboo. But as Aviva says with a hopeful smile, at the end of the film that things are changing. Yakin seems to want to challenge these evidently uncomfortable notions with Aviva.

The film's free flowing style doesn't always work - like the scene where little white kids break out rapping in the streets and subways, or male Eden thinking out loud if he wants to spontaneously start singing even though he hates musical are too precious and too self-conscious to work. But its bold, energetic and progressive representation of gender and body politics is sure to be a modern classic in the making.

Aviva opens a virtual theatrical release on June 12. Please visit Outsider Pictures for more info.