'Topside': Film Review | Venice 2020

Topside
Lowell A. Meyer

'Topside'

A striking debut, cinematic and affecting.

Forced from their home in one of New York's abandoned subway tunnels, a 5-year-old girl and her troubled mother struggle to find a safe place "up top."

Thirty minutes into the gut-wrenching Topside, the child at the drama's center experiences a sensory assault: the unaccustomed brightness of streetlamps, the cacophony of crowds, a supermarket's fluorescent glare. She wants to hide from it all, and so might the viewer — that's how intimately the film's writer-directors have bound us to the experiences of the character called Little, who has been living in the subterranean gloom deep below Manhattan.

Kinetic and riveting, the story unfurls from her point of view. Unlike many 5-year-old screen characters, Little is not conspicuously precocious or hyper-verbal. But she is exceedingly alert, moving through dreamscapes and nightmarish realities with a preternatural watchfulness. Zhaila Farmer is the exceptional newcomer inhabiting the center of this maelstrom, and the sensitive direction of Celine Held and Logan George, at the helm of their first feature, is crucial to making her story as affecting as it is.

Held — who also works onscreen, delivering a harrowing performance as Little's heroin-addicted mother — and George have made documentary shorts exploring the experience of homelessness. The world-in-the-margins they've created for Topside draws upon firsthand research as well as published chronicles of communities that sprung up in New York City's tunnels. But above all, they've conjured a thoroughly cinematic experience, one that pulses with compassion, unease and, not least, straight-up action.

Awarded the SXSW jury's directing prize after that festival's pandemic-crisis cancellation, the film takes its official bow at Venice, where it should turn heads with its intimate, propulsive storytelling and the "Lady or the Tiger" philosophical question it poses.

Within the stygian murk of an unused train tunnel, Nikki (Held) has carved out a home for her and Little, a shack of sorts decorated with arts-and-craftsy mobiles and sparkly things. Wisely eschewing explicit backstory, the screenplay doesn't spell out how long they've lived under the streets, but it would seem to be as long as Little can remember. All she knows about "up top," or "topside," is that her mother makes regular forays there and says she's working on a plan to find them a home. Before they can move, though, Little needs to grow her angel wings — a fantasy that the girl embraces but whose whimsy quickly wears thin for the viewer, because it's painfully clear that Nikki's plight renders her incapable of realizing such a plan.

A fellow tunnel dweller, John (a strong turn from hip-hop artist Fatlip), is on Nikki's case to get her act together and put Little in school. At the same time, he's one of the dealers she buys dope from — one of the complex paradoxes that shape the narrative as it builds toward its unforgettable crescendo. In his relatively well-appointed shack, complete with pet cats, John appears to occupy the top of the underground food chain. During a visit from Little, he tries to teach her subtraction; their seemingly simple interaction, layered with emotional nuance and devoid of sentimentality, is a punch to the solar plexus.

While Nikki is topside, Little wanders a sunless topography of trash, graffiti and otherworldly beauty, some views suggesting de Chirico, others Hieronymus Bosch. The tunnel scenes, sure to be enveloping on a big screen, are the only ones that weren't shot in New York City: The filmmakers used an upstate tunnel, in Rochester, for the underground setting, with graffiti artist Chris Pape, aka Freedom, re-creating some of his work from a storied Manhattan tunnel. The cinematography by Lowell A. Meyer is attuned to the mood and detail of Nora Mendis' production design and to the child's-eye-view allure of this vivid, smudged world.

Outstanding sound design is also key to the film's potency. Adult conversations, not fully understood by Little, form a harsh background noise. Through the thick walls around her bed, there's the reassuring din of trains barreling through. Very sparely used, David Baloche's elegant score heightens the aural texture with its poignancy.

The trespass notices that Little uses as drawing paper are the first clue that things are about to change drastically. In a brief and well-orchestrated scene, John confronts the eviction-minded MTA representatives who arrive, and as he stirs up distracting chaos, Nikki and Little flee. A subway station is the girl's first shock to the system — and, after half an hour in the dark, to ours. Referring to her daughter's eyes, Nikki's practical advice is to "just keep 'em closed." But when they exit the station, the sensory overload of midtown Manhattan is overwhelming for Little, even in her mother's arms.

And the way these two fold into each other is the core of the movie. Whatever deprivation they endure, their bond is undeniable, and all the more stirring when Nikki, determined to protect Little, is also jonesing for the heroin she needs, and on a thin tether. A scene in which Nikki tries to regroup in a public bathroom is an almost miraculous encapsulation of maternal love and the monstrous precariousness of Little's situation.

A particularly agonizing sequence unfolds in the apartment of Nikki's pimp and dealer, Les, whose repugnant belligerence and manipulation Jared Abrahamson captures compellingly. With so much of the meaning in Little's story signaled rather than spoken, it's worth noting that the first sounds she and Nikki hear upon entering Les' building are the wails of a crying baby.

What ensues in that waiting station of the strung-out and the doomed is both riveting and hard to watch, not because of anything graphic but thanks to the tense and oppressive purgatorial atmosphere. You might find yourself pulled out of the drama for a moment, hoping that Farmer, who was almost three years older than her character at the time of filming, didn't have to listen to all the violent dialogue spewed by Les. (It's helpful to know that the writer-directors, Held especially, had and continue to have an offscreen friendship with the first-time actor and her family.)

Meyer's camerawork, and the filmmakers' grasp of cinematic language, climaxes with a visceral charge in an action-suspense sequence that uses real subway time (yes, it's a thing) to heart-stopping, stomach-churning effect. (It's the second indelible use of the New York subway in a fiction film this year.)

Though it's rooted in a far grungier reality, Topside certainly brings to mind Beasts of the Southern Wild for its concern with a resilient young girl and an imperiled fringe society. Farmer is no less a revelation than that movie's Quvenzhané Wallis. With her shock of copper curls and purple-painted fingernails, Little is the would-be princess in a modern-day Grimm's fairy tale. Her laugh is like music. She's drawn to the strange, sad magic of a bird trapped in a subway station — on some level, perhaps, recognizing herself.

As her mother nears a momentous decision, and one that viewers are bound to debate, Little might not notice a busking soprano's performance of a Mozart aria. The lyrics, translated, speak of strength against odds: "Like a rock, we stand immobile / against the wind and storm / and are always strong / in trust and love." Held and Logan's film not only understands that sentiment but longs to celebrate it. First, though, it acknowledges something far more basic: If only it were that simple.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Cast: Zhaila Farmer, Celine Held, Fatlip, Jared Abrahamson, Cynthia Tombros, George Doerner, Tarra Riggs, Kevin Tanski, Daria Somers
Production companies: K Period Media, Level Forward, Red Crown, Likely Story, ELO Films
Director-screenwriters: Celine Held, Logan George
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Peter Cron, Kara Durrett, Jonathan Montepare, Melina Lizette, Josh Godfrey, Dan Crown
Executive producers: Kimberly Steward, Adrienne Becker, Christy Spitzer Thornton, Yoni Liebling
Director of photography: Lowell A. Meyer
Production designer: Nora Mendis
Costume designer: Begoña Berges
Editor: Logan George
Music: David Baloche
Supervising sound editor, rerecording mixer: David Forshee
Sound mixer: Dennis Rainaldi
Casting directors: Rebecca Dealy, Jennifer Venditti
Sales: Endeavor

90 minutes