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SXSW 2024 – Penelope ★★★★



Released: SXSW 2024 (TBC)

Director: Mel Eslyn

Starring: Megan Stott, Amber Wolfe, Cynthia Geary and Austin Abrams

In a world where there is constant pressure to remain online regularly and effectively to be always ‘on demand’, the ways in which people connect with each other and discover themselves tend to be increasingly reliant on technology. It is a theme that emerges within the pilot of Penelope, which differs in that respect with its exploration of a coming of age tale for a 16 year old, called Penelope, recognising the usefulness of technology but ultimately eschews such technological advances to obey a call to nature and live off the grid. It is a mesmerising adventure to observe as we discover natural delights alongside Penelope.

This pilot episode featured at the SXSW Film Festival as one of four episodes within the Duplass Brothers’ The Future of Indie TV showcase. Out of these four new independently financed shows, Penelope seems to be the most marketable with crossover appeal as it features a likeable, innocent teenager, played by a magnetic Megan Stott, who is striving for something better for her life. The focus of the episode lays the groundwork for Penelope’s curiosity to expand as she does use technology sparingly to learn new skills to help for a life outdoors and to buy essential camping equipment.

Wearing a customary backpack, which instantly identifies her as a traveller and backpacker, scenes are frequently filmed using handheld camera from the back of Penelope’s viewpoint as she encounters new terrains and people along her travels. This immersive approach, with many close ups of Penelope’s profile, serves to personalise the experience and we personally feel connected to Penelope as we live through her vicariously. The use of minimal dialogue in this episode further enhances the decision to focus on Penelope’s awestruck emotions. Indeed, life may not always work out according to plan and Penelope is certainly the first to admit that she does not have an organised itinerary, when she encounters friendly people enroute that have adopted a similar type of nomadic lifestyle. Thus, this episode immerses viewers within Penelope’s wondrous naivety within travels by foot or on transport, when she is able to use electronic currencies. It is an endearing and captivating watch as our curiosity of the natural environs is re-ignited by Penelope’s simple antics.

As Penelope learns, so do we and each scene is another step towards her escape from societal conventions but yet, the reasoning behind Penelope’s decision to walk away from family, friends and all that she knew, remain unclear. A hasty message drafted to her parents is a glimpse in to the perilous nature of her decision, with issues of her safety also highlighted to her by strangers, and there are small moments where, in other programmes and films, such as Wild, there may be even more danger lurking. Yet, this pilot of Penelope merely bathes us in a glow of positivity and magic with bright lighting and a score emphasising that this may be a higher calling for Penelope.

Watching Penelope will inevitably cause a smile to appear on your face, and perhaps that awakening of wanderlust and envy to experience a similar degree of freedom, with just the odd bit of cringe – she literally hugs a tree! But, Megan Stott’s portrayal is delightful and invites us to share in this fascinating adventure of the great power of nature. We may not know what Penelope is running from but from the glimpses of what she is running towards. We can also marvel alongside Penelope at the ingenuity of the rest of the animal kingdom alongside nature’s restorative healing nature, as we eagerly await the rest of this entertaining series!

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