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Penelope Pilot Review: Teenager Escapes Reality

Megan Stott with a backpack in the series Penelope

The pilot of new series Penelope is an enthralling chronicle of an escape to seclusion, resonating with some audiences’ innate desire to flee a technologically driven reality.

Amid the growing abundance of stories about technological advancement and the growing prevalence of Artificial Intelligence, Penelope is a breath of fresh air. The pilot of the show was screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Mel Eslyn, and co-written by Eslyn and Mark Duplass, the series follows 16-year-old Penelope (Megan Stott) as she embarks on an escape from her contemporary, technologically driven life and ventures out to live by-herself in nature. With only a backpack of her essentials, she is determined to set up an independent, technology-less life for herself.

Inspired by Duplass and his family’s quarantine days of watching Alone, Duplass and Eslyn have created an engaging narrative that resonates with many of our own desires to abandon an ever-advancing society and banish ourselves to wilderness. The show well-establishes its modern setting by accurately depicting the modern teenage experience with technological innovation — from Penelope asking the cashier at a store if they take Apple Pay to her asking Sam (Austin Abrams), a musician living in a van, why he doesn’t just post his music on TikTok rather than performing at random coffee shop venues, the show is mindful to be realistic in its portrayals of how modern technology is utilized by young people. 

Penelope is severely disconnected from those in her life in a time where she should feel more connected than ever. Despite this isolation she has a strong, unescapable calling to nature. Her character is decisive and knows what she wants, not thinking twice about leaving for the wilderness for the sake of her happiness.

“I’m not running away. I feel like I’m running towards something. It’s like I’m being called. Please just don’t come looking for me,” is what she says in a voice memo to her mom, explaining her whereabouts as she sits in the back of a train car, starting her new life. 

The second half of the episode explores Penelope’s encounter with Sam at a coffee shop, where he was performing a folksy-granola tune, barely being paid attention to by the shop’s patrons. He and Penelope strike up a conversation over coffee and pastries, and she goes back with him to his van. After some more talking about their commonalities of living on their own with no definitive plan, he invites her to spend the night with him in the van. Though the interactions between Sam and Penelope were established to be, mostly, platonic, and Stott and Abrams have noteworthy chemistry, the situation is at times uncomfortable considering Stott’s very adolescent appearance and Abrams’ older, mid-20s, one.

Megan Stott and Austin Abrams in a car in the series Penelope
Megan Stott and Austin Abrams appear in Penelope by Mel Eslyn, an official selection of the Episodic program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Nathan M. Miller.

At the end of the episode, Penelope attempts to camp at Cascade National Park, but is turned away because she doesn’t have any money to pay for it, something that has been a recurring event in the episode. But after the park ranger who was manning the security desk leaves for the day, she effortlessly strolls into the park, about to face her first real night on her own. The pilot concludes with a stunning shot of Penelope dwarfed by a massive, moss covered tree, and she subsequently leans her cheek into it, saying “Hi, friend,” and warmly embracing the tree, symbolic of her new natural reality.

Penelope’s pilot is a captivating and invigorating start to this unique coming-of-age narrative, which is even more impressive considering the full eight-episode series was independently made and produced. The series is off to an auspicious start, and audiences should anticipate the remainder of Penelope’s journey off the grid.

The Pilot of Penelope was screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival as part of the festival’s Episodic strand. Read all our Sundance reviews!

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