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‘Tendaberry’ Review: Striking Portrait of a Young Woman’s Life Maps Faces and Places with Expressive Filmmaking

Fleeting moments rushing into the unforgivable vortex of time, all of which would be lost forever if not for the presence of a camera, comprise Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s “Tendaberry,” a ravishingly lyrical portrait of both a single young life and a centuries-old locale converging in the present. These timelines collapse in Anderson’s debut feature, which flies with a formally unbound spirit, as fragments of lifetimes buried in photos and videos come together by way of idea association rather than strictly linear parameters. The one clear marker of a forward chronology are the title cards that announce the changing seasons.

Commanding this choreographed medley of swirling imagery is headstrong Dakota (Kota Johan), a 20-something Afro-Latina singer-songwriter living in Brooklyn, New York. Sultry moments of loving domesticity, of spontaneous sex, and comfortable silences with her Ukrainian boyfriend Yuri (Yuri Pleskun) fill the first chapter. But when Yuri’s father has a heart attack back in his homeland, Yuri must fly there to take care of him just as the Russian invasion begins. In the aftermath of the sudden separation, Dakota falls into a series of stumbles — some can be attributed to the natural growing pains of adulthood in a capitalist economy and others to impulsive choices — all of which we witness closely.

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Through Dakota’s onscreen observations, Anderson fixates on how people and places transform and become something else entirely, almost without any trace of what they once were. One such place, Coney Island, is introduced as seen through the Super-8 camera of Nelson Sullivan, a videographer who amassed 1900 hours of footage in 59 rolls of film in the late 1980s. Dakota idealizes who he was based on that material left behind. Later, Dakota’s voiceover narration and non-fiction asides take us back to 1910, before a fire consumed a previous iteration of the attractions. The only evidence that the version of this place Sullivan experienced and the early 20th century one existed are the visual records.

Its mostly free-flowing structure and sensual sensibilities make “Tendaberry” comparable to similarly conceived and thematically akin efforts: the first-person documentary “Beba,” last year’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” or Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey.” But Anderson’s film finds its own cadence in how cinematographer Matthew Ballard and editor Stephania Dulowski summon a feeling of raw immediacy and unforced progression. Handheld shooting, with the camera almost uninterruptedly floating around Dakota, like an invisible appendage attached to her body, ensure that Johan’s striking face dominates every space and that there’s no chance for the viewer to feel detached from her.

What Dakota undergoes over the course a year falls within the purview of commonplace situations — mundane even — though they take on renewed dramatic gravity in Anderson’s hands. Dakota has difficulty landing a new apartment, ponders her unplanned pregnancy, shows up late to her job at a mini market, searches for information on Yuri’s whereabouts back in war-torn Ukraine, or sings on the train for extra cash. Her quotidian drama is occasionally interspersed with her memories of the Dominican Republic, where she grew up, that have largely faded from her mind but are kept safe inside old home movies.

And while Anderson does commit the sin of indulgence for the sake of being comprehensive, her aim comes into view when the cumulative power of having accompanied the ferocious heroine on each of her quests reveals to us the breadth of the character’s affecting arc toward the end. In Johan, the filmmaker found a natural-born star with the range to traverse the tiny victories and crushing failures Dakota encounters. There’s a physicality to Johan’s performance that communicates Dakota’s fluctuating moods in the form of uninhibited dance sessions or scorching stares and only rarely as outbursts of emotion. Johan’s measured restraint translates into inner strength for Dakota.

Anderson’s gift as an artist is the creative determination to bend the inherent artificiality of fiction to the will of an emotional truth. She achieves that because she believes that even the smallest of exchanges contribute to the formation of someone’s transient journey through life: friends and hair dye, apartments and roommates, co-workers and assholes, sad smiles and boisterous laughter, tears and blood, secret thoughts and unspoken words.
The very impulse of recoding these moments, Anderson suggests, dons them with meaning. They feed into our human need to declare, “I was here, and I mattered to those who loved me.”

By the time a stirringly assembled coda on time’s cruelty and the insignificance of our presence on this planet knocks the wind out of us, we have come to the realization that Anderson’s quietly sumptuous “Tendaberry” has allowed us to intimately inhabit another person’s existence.

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