If you go through the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, you would barely think of it as poetry in motion. But writer-director Haley Elizabeth Anderson accomplishes this aesthetic in her fearlessly sharp feature debut, Tendaberry. Set post-pandemic, it balances neorealism and multimedia in this portrait of a young Dominican woman in her early twenties going through a year of obstacles and self-discoveries. Divided into four chapters, each one a season, the life of city transplant Dakota (phenomenal newcomer Kota Johan) is captured through an expressive, loose narrative lens as she gets through her challenging days in a city she – and just about anyone – loves and hates. It’d be easy to compare such a film to other big city slice-of-life films like Sundance great Skate Kitchen, but Anderson’s vision stands out in a way that captures the emotional complexities of her dynamic protagonist while paying tribute to an ever-changing city that has shaped so many lives.
Through a series of poetic montages using old footage of 20th-century Coney Island, our heroine Dakota expressively narrates her contemplation of the changing of the peninsular neighborhood throughout time, as well as her relationship to the city she has called “home.” Despite having a deep yearning for life, she lives what most would perceive to be a mundane existence in South Brooklyn, working a series of dead-end jobs that range from a discount store to a strip club – even busking on the subway to unbothered commuters. But one ray of light in her life is her tender, playful romance with her Ukrainian boyfriend Yuri (Yuri Plesken) with whom she shares an apartment. Their love story is cut short when Yuri has to return to his home country to care for his ailing father. This is the launching point for Dakota’s journey where she navigates loneliness, people in her life, and other circumstances that throw her for a loop. Her vulnerable moments are what help make Kota Johan shine in a performance full of soul and fervor. The fact that Anderson cast Johan after meeting her on the subway contributes to the believability of her raw portrayal of a New Yorker going through it.
Dakota’s world soon changes when Ukraine is invaded, and she cannot locate Yuri. If that’s not enough, she simultaneously deals with job loss, a real estate scam, and a pregnancy – with Yuri’s baby. While she faces a future of uncertainty alone, she is reminded of how lonely life in the big city can be, especially with the lack of a support system. Dakota eventually finds a much-needed shoulder to lean on with a headstrong young stripper (Erika Kutalia) who spiritedly reminds her of her worth. Through both deep conversation and narration, Dakota contemplates her connections to her estranged Dominican family and her roots – having emigrated from the DR to upstate New York as a child. It is through these details that Anderson fleshes out our protagonist more through her relationships and how certain factors may reinforce her decision to stay in the city.
Tendaberry excels not only in portraying the uncertainty that comes with a changing life but also in capturing a vigorous generation of Brooklynites in a way that feels refreshing and true to the city. The kinetic, verité-like cinematography by Matthew Ballard adds a visual energy that boosts the narrative. His camerawork, along with Anderson’s direction, also adds a genuine aesthetic that matches Dakota’s world, through both her hardships and the tenderness she finds. Anderson’s vision of Brooklyn – more specifically Coney Island – is a moving, zestful tribute to the borough that speaks to our ever-changing times. Her casting of (largely) non-professional actors works to the point of how well they all naturally play off one another. “The Earth laughs and cries, but I dance in the face of it,” Dakota expressively narrates at one point. With Tendaberry, Haley Elizabeth Anderson succeeds in showing that despite everyday trials and tribulations, the city and its people are still alive.
– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)
2024 Sundance Film Festival; Haley Elizabeth Anderson; Tendaberry