Thick as Thieves: Friends, Lovers, and Siblings in the cinema of Dan Sallitt

Surveying the many intricacies of emotional tumult in four outstanding films by the NYC-based filmmaker/critic.

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Honeymooners caught in a whirlpool of sexual frustration. Estranged sisters with contrasting religious views. Siblings who share an untenable emotional bond. Lifelong friends slowly drifting apart.

The odd couples in Dan Sallitt’s four feature films to date are opposites caught in perpetual attraction. Their complicated relationships, fueled by an obviously shared magnetism, become mired in frustrating cycles of miscommunication that have no discernible beginning or end. This helps create an atmosphere of internal tumult and anxiety closed off from the outside world, a sublime, luminescent, green-leafed purgatory of sorts which feels akin to the cinema of Eric Rohmer, who along with Maurice Pialat is mentioned by Sallitt in loving title card dedications. By focusing so thoroughly on the perceptions of these quietly tormented characters, his films double as portraits of infuriating self-doubt, and how it erodes the positive interpersonal cues we yearn for in friendships, sex, and marriage.

Most streaming services would classify Sallitt’s films as “dramas”, but the categorization feels wholly inadequate. Honeymoon (1998) could very well be a horror film with the soul of John Cassavetes. All the Ships at Sea (2004) echoes the spiritual crises of faith and purpose in Robert Bresson’s greatest work. The Unspeakable Act (2012) exposes the raw, frayed nerves in coming-of-age tropes made famous by Hollywood sex comedies. Fourteen (2020) doesn’t call attention to the passage of time, only what we choose to do with it, in turn feeling like the great Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang had been reincarnated to modern-day Brooklyn.

In addition to being a filmmaker, Sallitt is a well-respected film critic who's spent decades embodying the best version of online cinephilia. Unlike so many writers who brazenly use social media as a megaphone to claim their love of movies is the best/only kind of love, his passion has remained measured, steady, thoughtful, and kindly expressed. So it’s not surprising that his characters almost never yell. Even their most intense arguments, like the punishing verbal throwdowns in Honeymoon, rarely rise above a certain decibel. But that doesn’t mean they don’t sting.

During the film’s telling opening scene, old friends Mimi and Michael (Edith Meeks and Dylan McCormick) end their final romantic date agreeing that maybe the platonic status quo was preferable. For some time afterward, that semi-mutual agreement remains intact. Although hints of flirtation and regular late-night phone calls suggest the two like being pulled back into each other’s orbit, especially since many of their mutuals have already anointed them a great couple.

This hypothetical inevitably becomes too exciting for them to ignore, and despite some obvious red flags (they still haven’t had sex!), Michael and Mimi choose to elope. An idyllic trip to Michael’s Pennsylvania lakehouse promises the perfect getaway for the impulsive newlyweds, but things turn poisonous almost immediately. Their maiden voyage between the sheets is very Titanic-like; Michael, initially full steam ahead, fails to recognize the symbolic iceberg that is Mimi’s obvious emotional and physical disconnect with the whole sexual experience. Once his fragile ego collides with her passive-aggressive impeachments, they’re both sunk.

Sallitt stages their argument as a series of unnervingly personal escalations broken up by long periods of deafening silence. The camera always remains still, while the script avoids sensational one-upmanship. Watching these two people stick each other with sharp words and succumb to their own worst urges rings true as a harbinger of doom for couples who’ve grown exceedingly tired of each other. Making things extra discomforting is the fact that it’s all happening on what’s supposed to be their happiest night together. We get a sense of loss for feelings that have not yet been given room to breathe.

Honeymoon sits with Michael and Mimi as they oscillate between blame and resentment, watching like an uncomfortable witness who’s trapped in their marital vortex. Both characters grapple with the negative implications of their decisions and assumptions, and how this tidal wave of insecurity grows exponentially exhausting over a short period of time. Yet, neither one of them has the life experience or confidence to truly start digging themselves out of this massive hole. For better or (mostly) worse, in sickness and in health, they are stuck together in potential misery.

An equally powerful sense of disconnection courses through Sallitt’s All the Ships at Sea, but the primary relationship under scrutiny is between one’s self and their faith. Long ago, Catholic theology professor Evelyn (Strawn Bovee) decided to follow a spiritual path that didn’t involve her self-involved parents or much younger sister Virginia (Edith Meeks), who has since become embroiled with a religious cult in another state. This situation has left the family unit vulnerable, and in times of great transition, somewhat incapable of offering empathy to soothe each other’s pain.

Evelyn grapples with this fact while recounting her most recent attempt at familial reconciliation to a colleague, Father Joseph (Dylan McCormick). Here, the film takes the shape of a Bergman-style confession, flashing back to when Evelyn and Virginia visited their family’s lakehouse (the director’s preferred refuge!) for a shared reset.

Sallitt’s films all deal with emotions and philosophies struggling to be expressed, but none more so than All the Ships at Sea. It is a film that questions the very essence of social institutions (family, church, sisterhood) that are supposed to provide people with beacons of support during trying times but end up achieving just the opposite.

The dialogue’s somber tenor informs discussions of ideology and purpose between the two sisters, whose stubbornly held belief systems provide convenient cover to avoid deeper traumas, at least initially. Despite the film’s tranquil facade, raging feelings of self-doubt and delusion threaten to rise up from underneath the surface.

Still, unlike Honeymoon, which never suggests Mimi and Michael will ever figure things out, All the Ships at Sea embraces the possibility that people can positively influence each other. Although Evelyn will never know it, her time with Virginia has made a positive impression on the younger woman, showing that despite differences of opinion and old grudges, there’s a friendly ear willing to listen if circumstances ever call for it again.

Sallitt’s films are wise because they show you how difficult the road toward wisdom can be. It’s earned over long periods of self-reflection and bitter internal questioning. For Evelyn and Virginia, their short time together might have been shortlived in lives that have thus far been defined by unhappiness and separation, but it’s a detour they will always remember for the right reasons.

The Unspeakable Act marks a shift for Sallitt away from the adult world toward equally perplexing experiences of youth. 16-year-old Jackie (Tallie Medel) has been in love with her older brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) for as long as she can remember. “He’s the most interesting person I know,” she says in an early passage of voice-over narration, rationalizing the physical and emotional desires that feel so natural to her but society deems taboo. The two share an unshakeable connection that has long been apparent to their mother and other siblings, but in recent years has grown increasingly problematic with the onset of puberty.

Instead of turning this potentially controversial subject matter into fodder for sexual awakening, Sallitt stays tethered to Jackie’s psychological mindset as she works through the prickly feelings causing her so much confusion. Therapy sessions initially prove to be a hindrance, but as Jackie begins to make peace with the process, her perspective on Matthew leaves the realm of wish fulfillment and fantasy for a more pragmatic reality.

The Unspeakable Act is fully aware of the expectations teenage melodramas imbed in the viewer’s mind, and Sallitt tenderly weaves together short scenes of friendship, competition, confusion, happenstance, and disappointment within Jackie’s overall experience. But these moments, ones that would otherwise define a film’s entire narrative, never come close to doing so here. And instead of spilling Jackie’s secrets out into the public sphere for righteous judgment and indignation, they remain hers and hers alone. The Unspeakable Act respects that she doesn’t need anyone (not even us the audience) to justify directional changes in her life’s journey.

Time has always been a very strange constant throughout Sallitt’s filmography. In Honeymoon, the title itself implies a short, exciting, lustful experience freed from the chores of normal life. All the Ships at Sea uses the “vacation” construct to create a similarly condensed sense of temporality, with Evelyn understanding there might only be limited time to help the possibly suicidal Virginia. The Unspeakable Act takes place over the course of a school year.

Fourteen, Sallitt’s latest film and one of the year’s best new releases, deviates from this trend, portraying an old friendship that changes subtly over the course of many years because of compromise, resentment, deteriorating mental health, and differing priorities.

Mara (Tallie Medel) met Jo (Norma Kuhling) in middle school, and despite very different personalities and life goals, have remained friends into their early twenties. When Fourteen begins, both are working with children, Mara as a teacher’s aid and Jo as a social worker. But that is where the similarities between them end. Almost immediately this is revealed to be somewhat of a one-sided relationship; Jo’s volatile mood swings and emotional neediness dictate the when, where, and how of their time spent together, often at Mara’s expense.

It takes a few scenes to realize it, but with every cut Fourteen leaps forward in time, sometimes months and years, without calling attention to the fact. Different boyfriends appear and new apartments are decorated, but old habits and judgments persist. Jo’s needs always take precedent, and her continuing battles with self-medication (alcohol and drugs) only distract from long-gestating mental health issues that have plagued her progress as a young adult. Sometimes Mara is an active participant in the drama, sometimes not.

Ultimately, Jo seems to disappear from the narrative entirely, only a name and symbol for Mara to reference during nostalgic bursts or bouts of guilt. Fourteen understands that life only gives us so many opportunities to truly make amends with those we supposedly love. If taken for granted, they simply continue to be markers of animosity from the past. Mara becomes the living embodiment of this push-pull between hope and resigned judgment.

In many ways, Sallitt’s films have always been about the dynamics of uneven relationships. But instead of laying blame to any one character, he creates spaces for reconciliation and understanding that are incredibly generous. Fourteen expands the duration of such a scenario, and in turn, increases our capacity for empathy in understanding Mara’s prolonged exasperation, and Jo’s crippling self-awareness of her deteriorating psychological state.

Fourteen concludes with a funeral scene that thoroughly gutted me, not because it’s especially dramatic, but for the wealth of missed opportunities it finally lays to rest. With so many memories and experiences accumulated, so much pent up grief and honesty spilling out in the company of death, Sallitt recalls the classic final scene in Edward Yang’s masterpiece Yi Yi (A One and a Two…) (2000) where a young boy bids farewell to his recently deceased grandma with the matter-of-fact humility only a child could muster. Living in harmony with that lovely sentiment, his Fourteen presents a malleable alternative perspective when it comes to reckoning with the end of any tangled human relationship: People may slip away, but they are never really gone if we choose to remember them fondly.

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Where to Watch

  • Fourteen can be streamed at virtual cinemas around the country. Click here to purchase a ticket.

  • The Unspeakable Act is currently streaming via Fandor.

  • All the Ships at Sea and Honeymoon have been acquired by Grasshopper Film and will be available for streaming in the coming weeks/months.

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Until next time,
GHJ