Sundance 2024: Tendaberry, Kneecap, Seeking Mavis Beacon

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With recent hits like “We're All Going to the World's Fair” and “Kokomo City,” the NEXT program at Sundance Film Festival continues to feature daring new voices unfettered by storytelling conventions. This year brings three boundary pushing films featuring protagonists, who, in some way, feel they’ve been abandoned, either by a lover, a father, or the cover model of a typing software. No matter their origin, the hurt on display is wide-ranging and deceptively difficult to pin down. 

If the emotional dreams of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” were a movie, it’d be Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s audacious and risky “Tendaberry.” Anderson’s debut feature is the kind of kinetic film unafraid to push the envelope that Sundance once prided itself on destroying. It begins with a poetic montage, a storytelling motif Anderson applies several times, each instance to greater success, composed of real-life videographer Nelson Sullivan’s video diary and other 16mm footage of Coney Island. Dakota (a revelatory Kota Johan), a 20-something year old recent transplant to New York City, speaks over the eclectic images, wondering aloud about how the historic pier has marked the passage of time. 

A film divided into four chapters, split by the changing seasons, “Fall,” a fitting descriptor, is the period where Dakota’s happiness plunges: She spends wind-spent days at Coney Island and cozy nights in her humble apartment with her boyfriend Yuri (a tender Yuri Pleskun) until he’s forced to return home to Ukraine to tend to his ailing father. His departure leaves Dakota alone, with few friends and even less money as she makes ends meet working at a convenience store. Before long, Dakota puts aside her dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter; ceases busking on the subway; loses her job and becomes pregnant. And as the long days pass into desolate night, she is reminded of how lonely a city like New York can be when you’re far from family. 

At times, Anderson employs a hectic steadicam, a strategy she worked to better effect in her short “Pillars” but is no less tactile here. The camera’s woozy movement is particularly abrasive a third a way through the film, as Anderson works to visually match her lens to Dakota’s hardships. At its best, Anderson’s aesthetic recalls Les Blank and Khalik Allah, stitching everyday city life into a vital mapping of retraced footsteps, securing our present personal problems with the inhabitants of the past. The film’s final forty minutes, taking place during the summer, in fact, is emblematic of the warmth found in one’s community. Here, Anderson takes one last mighty swing, offering a resplendent montage that gushes with vibrant grace notes. A tribute to a city one’s place in it, “Tendaberry” is a gift of a film, where the voice is so new, so rare, and so full of immeasurable energy that the frame can barely contain it.    

Taking place in post-Troubles Belfast, “Kneecap,” writer/director Rich Peppiatt’s Irish language hip-hop origin story is big, booming, and fearless: Based on real-life rap trio Kneecap, who play themselves, it concerns Liam Óg and Naoise Ó Cairealláin, two working class drug dealers with lyrical talent who befriend JJ (JJ Ó Dochartaigh), a local music teacher doubling as DJ. When JJ reads the pair’s lyric notebook, in fact, he sees an opportunity in their subversive message to liberate the Irish language, which only 80,000 presently speak and is facing a referendum to be publicly acknowledged. 

The trio’s dreams of music stardom, however, go against the respectability politics preached by JJ’s activist wife, along with the oppressive cops and a paramilitary group wary of the trio’s pro-drug image. That political, cultural, and linguistic outsider-ism often recalls Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come,” which looked at post-colonial Jamaica as it rebelliously worked to find its musical identity on the world stage. Peppiatt’s film is bursting with a similar resolve, purposefully opting for loud editing and a bold palette that call attention to the rambunctious verve of live performances that are so tangible, you get a contact-high just by watching. 

Most of all, “Kneecap” is a film about miscommunication: Naoise and his mother were abandoned by his paramilitary father (Michael Fassbender), who faked his death and is on the run from the authorities. Since his departure, Naoise’s mom (Simon Kirby) is a shell of herself, closed off to her son and the outside world. Though Fassbender’s part is slightly underwritten (his zen character feels like it wandered off the set of “The Killer”) he still manages to work effortlessly in the gulf that separates a taciturn father from his vulnerable son.  

These first-time actors don’t require a grading curve; they are legitimately internal, deeply felt performers. So much so, I spent the first half tricking myself into believing Dochartaigh was a grizzled under-the-radar character actor, and Liam Óg and Naoise were plucked from obscurity discoveries. By its rapturous conclusion, “Kneecap” becomes a reminder of how music can make individuals be seen by dogmatic authorities, common communities, and, most importantly, each other.  

Seeking Mavis Beacon,” the feature debut by Jazmin Jones, is a fanciful documentary guided by digital native sleuths that gives space to a wide range of interests and identities. Its title refers to the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing software that Jones and many others fondly remember for helping them hone their computer skills. But for whatever reason Mavis, the Black woman cover model and avatar, suddenly disappeared. Jones and Olivia Ross, a product of Black Girls Code, team together to search for the woman familiar to many but known by few with vigor. 

Jones does well taking inspiration from Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman,” a work similarly about chasing an erased history blended into mythology. Jones’ own exploration expands when it’s hitting on those beats as her and Ross, two Black e-girl detectives, use libraries, Google maps, interviews, and even summoning circles to not only find Renee L’Esperance, the Haitian-born actress who played Mavis, but also to learn if she even wants to be discovered. In the meantime, Jones spotlights queer and non-binary communities, contemplates AI, and considers the safety Black people felt while learning from a Black woman avatar and the stereotypes such a transaction confirms when it’s white people being taught. But mostly, it’s just wonderful seeing Jones and Ross, two eminently intelligent Black women, nerd out in a maximalist office space whose posters pay homage to other Black women like bell hooks and Zora Neale Hurston.        

Unfortunately, by the last thirty minutes, Jones slightly loses her thread. Though she and Ross try to be conscious of their subject’s rights, by the end, Jones is so desperate to meet L’Esperance, she not only pushes the actress’ son, she also pushes herself to tears. While there is an intriguing conversation to be had about how much we invest ourselves in symbols, idols, and mythology, to the point of forgetting to see these heroes as people, Jones struggles to shape that personal angst into a coherent arc. Instead, the film slips into navel gazing territory. 

Still, the first hour or so of Jones’ narrative is so freeing, thought provoking, bold, and vulnerable, you can’t help but cherish its early ambition as a necessary act of historical preservation.


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