“J.C. told me initially that his community had no children. After a moment he added, ‘We have adults as young as five.” That quote happens to be from a 1993 book, The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City. The quote happens to be directly relevant to the subject matter at hand.
Five-year-old “Little” (Zhaila Farmer) lives with her mother, Nikki (Celine Held) underneath the NYC subways. It is as brutal as it sounds, with the most saddening prospect being that Nikki herself does not seem that motivated to make a better life for her kin and herself. Perhaps she is unwilling because she is unable to. She doesn’t have a choice in the matter when city workers come below to have these denizens clear out for construction purposes. Forced with losing her child if she complies, Nikki and Little go “Topside” (above ground) in an effort to stay together.
As someone who has experienced homelessness before at one point in life as a teenager, sometimes watching any movie where it is a part of the story puts me back in a state of mind. It’s not a great place to be, but it does make me thankful for what is present now. That said, I say all of this to say that Topside is so well made that you don’t need to have had firsthand experience to feel its emotional weight.
Topside is the feature-length debut both in directing and writing for Held and Logan George. This is one of those films that success-wise is predicated on how quickly and how effectively filmmakers establish their world. In a feature about 90 minutes with three clearly delineated acts, there is no time for the duo to waste and they don’t. They draw viewers in immediately, not so much focusing on how our subjects got there, but the now. Premiering at Venice 2020, comparisons have been made structurally and thematically to Room, Beasts of No Nation, and the like. In many respects, technically this resembles something one may see from The Safdie Brothers. Rarely is the movie not moving, and sometimes, the camerawork—mostly seen from the perspective of Little, is fittingly frenzied, driving home a sense of tension and uncertainty specifically in the moving second act and part of its final one.
Topside is a movie that draws its script from its scenario and largely lets the scenario drive, methodically, what we end up finding out about the characters fighting to survive. A lot of the narrative, seen from the eyes of Little, is subtle. Little is bright, but can’t quite make out everything her mom and one of the other main underground residents in John (Fatlip) are conversing about. Neither can we. The first hour directly puts an audience into the way Little is interpreting everything, and the last 30 minutes sees a shift to Nikki’s vantage point as everything comes to a frantic head.
For some, this is absolutely going to land for them as an emotional gut punch. For others, the movie’s final act might not be as engrossing as what came before it. Without spoilers, I’ll preface by saying that I am not yet a parent, and naturally, I can’t fully relate to what Nikki has to sadly experience. Truthfully, the quick about-face in her character I personally found difficult to buy into as she made her decision and it was the only time in which I truly felt I was watching a movie hellbent on tugging at the heartstrings.
Nevertheless, Topside is driven by its acting. For the young Farmer, she too is making not only her feature debut, but her first on-screen debut. This isn’t a bit part or a part that doesn’t ask for much; Farmer is asked to convey a lot (bewilderment and sensory overload to name a new) sans dialogue and her countenance and presence does it all. She’ll be the one talked about the most once more eyes get on this, but Held triples in starring and plays the role well of a well-intentioned yet seriously flawed and possibly selfish maternal figure.
Undoubtedly a heavy movie, Topside benefits from a ground level approach, focusing on the here and now. At minimum, it is a potent introduction to three names cinephiles may need to get accustomed to hearing.
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