For New Yorkers, the new film “Topside” may cover some pretty familiar ground. But this cutting drama from the filmmaking duo of Celine Held and Logan George has a lot for the rest of us to chew on and it should open the eyes and touch the hearts of anyone with a soul. Held and George both co-wrote and co-directed this hard-hitting indie with Held also starring in one of the film’s two lead roles.
“Topside” actually premiered way back in 2020 at the Venice Film Festival and now is finally set for its release here in the States. The movie brings to mind a number of other terrific independent films from the past several years. It’s kinda like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” but minus the fantasy element. It’s a bit like “Room” but without the hostage angle. Yet it’s also very much its own thing, and it has a powerful real-world story to tell.
The movie opens with a quote that stayed in the back of my mind for the duration of the movie. It’s from Jennifer Toth’s 1993 book “The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City”. It reads “J.C. told me initially that his community had no children. After a moment he added, ‘We have adults as young as five.’” It doesn’t take long for the quote’s relevance to be realized.
Much of the film’s first act is spent on setting up its world. Held and George do a great job visualizing the subterranean homeless community living deep underneath the concrete jungle of New York City. In a dark deserted dead-end section of the subway system, a small group has made homes out of shipping pallets, sheets of tin, and tarp. It’s in this world where we meet 5-year-old Little (played by the remarkable young actress Zhaila Farmer).
“Topside” is mostly told from Little’s unique perspective. Early on we watch her innocently soaking up the few rays of sun beaming through a couple of gaps in the concrete above. It’s all she’s ever seen of the outside world. She’s never been “topside”. Her mother Nikki (wonderfully played by Held) tells her she has to wait for her wings to grow. It’s one of several made-up stories Nikki tells her daughter in order to shield her from their real-life situation.
Nikki is very well aware of their condition. She slips away while Little sleeps and goes topside to get what money and supplies she can. We get the sense that Nikki’s time above is more complicated than she lets on, but it isn’t until later that the film really shows where desperation has led this single mother. While Nikki is gone, Little is looked after by a fellow dweller named John (Fatlip). He’s a mysterious character but buried within his short temper is genuine concern for Little.
While Nikki and Little seem settled into their circumstances, we know that it’s doomed. Glimpses of trespassing notices and warnings to evacuate go unheeded by the community and sets up what’s to come. And it comes to a head early one morning when a group of city workers surprise the community with strict orders to leave. Knowing she’ll loose her daughter to Social Services if they’re caught, Nikki takes Little and runs.
As everything she has told her daughter about the topside crumbles under the weight of reality, Nikki frantically scrambles to shield and protect Little despite having no money, no food, and no place to go. In the meantime Nikki’s above-ground connections begin painting a clearer picture of this loving yet troubled mother. Interestingly, the movie doesn’t get lost in Nikki’s backstory or explaining how she ended up in the situation she’s in. It stays fully focused in the present. That willingness to stay centered in the here-and-now is a key reason the story packs such a punch.
As the mother and daughter flee, the movie takes a heart-shattering turn. Nikki escapes topside, exposing Little to the real world for the very first time. The young child’s fear is palpable as she’s overwhelmed by the city’s blinding lights and assaultive collection of sounds. DP Lowell A. Meyer’s visceral camerawork is constantly shooting from the little girl’s point-of-view, conveying a real sense of terror and anxiety. It’s harrowing stuff.
“Topside” embodies everything I love about independent cinema. It tells a fiercely intimate story without any obligations to studio guidelines or genre expectations. It features an unflinching authenticity that comes through the fantastic cinematography, the moving script, its crisp editing, and two phenomenal performances from Held and Farmer. At times it plays like a hellish thriller. But that’s a testament to the film’s ability to draw us closer to the uncomfortable themes it’s dealing with. And while it can be troubling and hard to watch, it’s also honest and straightforward, which is exactly what this kind of material needs. “Topside” premieres Friday in select theaters and on VOD.