A soulful coming-of-age story with far more on its mind than the here and now, Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s Tendaberry is an ambitious directorial debut mixing various storytelling forms to achieve its poetic patchwork of ideas. Combining recollections of the past, a present way of life, and hopes for the future through the eyes of 23-year-old Dakota (Kota Johan), it follows her journey juggling romance, work, friendship, and family. The nature of its scattershot hybrid approach––incorporating narrative, documentary, and archival materials––results in certain passages feeling a bit stretched, but the cumulative effect is one of an impressive new voice.

Hopping around Brooklyn with a strong focus on the Coney Island area, Tendaberry doubles as a portrait of the city, one that marvels at its bustling joys as much as it exudes frustrations with the rough-and-tumble nature. Beyond just a shared fascination with the locales, the film evokes an Eliza Hittman-like confidence in silence. As we witness Dakota’s burgeoning, playful relationship with her boyfriend Yuri (Yuri Pleskun) against the windswept beach area, dialogue is kept to a minimum, a trait that carries through to the film’s most-effective sequences. Their strong bond is quickly interrupted when Yuri gets the call he needs to tend to his ill father in Ukraine. Soon after, Dakota finds out she’s pregnant and sets on a journey of romantic longing, questioning her place in the transience of the big city.

Resisting the myopic approach of many directorial debuts pulling from a lived experience, Anderson establishes an interest in the past and future. Through voiceover we hear Dakota wonder what Coney Island looked like 110 years ago, with the director boldly weaving in early archival footage, giving a space to tell a mini-history of the area. She even ponders far into the future, exclaiming, “In 100 years, 10 million people will replace all of us.” By adding a cosmic perspective to this slice-of-life drama, we glean the sense that this story is simply one of many that deserve to be told. This idea of a greater community is expanded upon with the incorporation of actual footage shot by Nelson Sullivan, a gay man living in 1980s New York “who filmed everything,” whose tapes in the early days of homegrown videography have thus been a vital archive.

Throughout this urban chronicle, Anderson touches on various ubiquitous aspects of any city-dweller––the transient nature of friends, the stresses of apartment hunting, contending with everyday hustlers on the street––finding an authenticity only someone who reveres a place, warts and all, can hold. While certain sequences of Dakota’s work life, from the mind-numbingly menial to the dangerous, can feel repetitive and elongated in nature, the film hits a stride in its more musical sections. We see Dakota working on songs in her apartment while also busking and dancing. Using movement to connect with friends and an attempt to heal familial bonds, there’s a particularly touching sequence featuring Darondo’s “Listen to My Song.”

Short largely in handheld by Matthew Ballard (also making his feature debut), the anxious, lively form may not appeal to everyone, but it feels in-step with this city symphony and its subjects, glimpsing for moments of beauty amidst the chaos. With her debut feature, Anderson seems to proclaim that, whatever the form, she’s going to convey the image that has the most feeling. It’s an effect that works best in the most freeform passages. Capped off by a sequence reminiscent of the iconic 25th Hour monologue montage––yet emanating more love than vitriol––Tendaberry hones in on a specific feeling: in a diverse city of many, we all still feel the fleeting passage of time, so it’s important to seize the moment.

Tendaberry premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

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