Reel Reviews | Tendaberry (Sundance ’24)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

When her boyfriend goes back to Ukraine to be with his ailing father, 23-year-old Dakota anxiously navigates her precarious new reality, surviving on her own in New York City in Tendaberry.

Dakota is in love with New York City.  She and her boyfriend Yuri have plans to run the world.  Her journey as a singer-songwriter is currently going through the stage of busking on the subway.  She has a job, working in the local convenience store but her love is her music and the city.  When Yuri is called home to the Ukraine to care for his ailing father, Dakota soon realizes that her love affair with the city is not reciprocal, and that New York City is a hard place to survive on your own.

Haley Elizabeth Anderson both writes and directs Tendaberry.  The film, Anderson’s debut feature film, is an intimate and moving character study and an unabashed, openhearted love letter to Brooklyn. The film’s star is Kota Johan.

Kota Johan is mesmerizing in her breakthrough performance.  She is wistful and mercurial and dynamic at separate times through the movie and all of them at the same time in at least one scene.  In a strange choice, Anderson rarely frames Johan in close range but uses large shots of Johan allowing her to utilize her entire body to communicate.  Johan responds well and performs beautifully.

Haley Anderson is super creative in her direction weaving an intricate patchwork of lyrical handheld cinematography, found footage fragments, spectral home movies, and documentary digressions together with Johan’s acting.  Anderson devotes the film’s first movement to a portrait of young love before shifting her attention to Dakota’s life after loss and her struggles to stay afloat and forge community with fellow migrants in a rapidly gentrifying landscape.

While the techniques Anderson uses are effective and smart, they are a little painstaking and can prove to be a bit tedious at times.  Surely, the film is a story of tragedy and triumph but, the film languishes in long moments of meandering mediocrity.  It becomes a work of effort for the audience to stay connected to the story as Anderson inserts her vignettes.

Overall, Tendaberry sensitively charts Dakota’s inner journey while also looking outward to craft an elegiac portrait of the city she calls home. In a breakout performance, Johan brings Dakota’s delicate but defiant voice to the foreground, both through poetic narration and musical performances.  Tendaberry is a gorgeous and intriguing portrait of a beautiful girl and a beautiful city.

Grade:  B-