PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: Filmmaker Haley Elizabeth Anderson smiles at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Tendaberry” premiere at The Ray Theatre. (Photo by Donyale West/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Annie Lyons
Music weaves its way into the fabric of Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s Tendaberry. You can find it right there in the title, a reference to the Laura Nyro song “New York Tendaberry.” Interspersed with lyrical interludes, the film paints a double portrait of New York City and a young singer living on its fringes, blending the two for an affecting treatise on uncertainty and accepting change.
Anderson premiered her short film Pillars at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and the January 21 premiere of her feature debut felt like a full-circle moment.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Sundance, for having us back again and believing in our little film from South Brooklyn. In 2019, I was in a very dark place. But while I was in it, the city held me and taught me what it means to be human, to hurt, to lose, to miss, to love, and to cry alongside the 10 million other people who are around me,” the writer-director shares with The Ray Theatre crowd in Park City, Utah. “I found comfort and answers in the simple in-between moments in the street and in the people. They’re all here in this room and in between all the sounds, the images, and the love we poured into the story.”
Screening in the NEXT section, Tendaberry blends handheld cinematography, grainy home videos, flitting interludes, and poetic voice-overs for a heartfelt scrapbook of styles. The film traces seasons in 23-year-old Dakota’s (Kota Johan, in a stirring feature debut performance) life, first showing her fall in love with Yuri (Yuri Pleskun) and the life they begin to build together. But when Yuri returns to Ukraine to help his ailing father, he gets caught up in the Russian invasion and resulting war. Dakota struggles to come to terms with his absence, all while scraping to survive on her own in the transforming city.
For the textured sound design, Anderson drew inspiration from one of her favorite albums, Wallflower by the Avalanches. “I’m really obsessed with how that album changes and how you can hear sounds from documentaries and other albums,” says Anderson during the film’s post-premiere conversation. “I also just wanted it to sound like what Brooklyn sounds like, you know, like sirens and the clicking of your radiator. I really wanted to stay in reality, but the interludes were really inspired by Wallflower.”
With striking resonance, the filmmaker also puts Dakota’s journey in conversation with the archives of artist Nelson Sullivan, who shot hundreds of videos documenting his life in New York from 1983 until his death in 1989. Sullivan often turned the camera on himself, and his work represents a highly personal time capsule of the city’s rapidly changing LGBTQ+ arts scene and nightlife.
Anderson shares that she discovered his archives ahead of her move to New York from Texas. “I was really sort of obsessed with the clubs he had seen, the East Village, the Pyramid [club]. I wanted to learn what that was like before I came there,” she says. “You watch so many hours of his archive, you feel like he’s a friend, and you really, really do know him.”
She always hoped to find the right moment to mix Sullivan’s archives into a movie or to make a documentary about him. Originally, she conceptualized Tendaberry as a series of vignettes about many characters, but when she shifted the scope to focus on Dakota, the choice suddenly made sense. “I think Nelson speaks to the greater sentiment of the past and how the city fades away and changes and your friends sort of go,” the filmmaker explains. Seasons bring change to Dakota and the city, but New York holds her all the same.
To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.