SIFF: Topside, or the Underbelly of New York City

You don’t often get movies that depict stories that focus on the forgotten who have slipped through the cracks of the big city. The last time I can recall I saw a movie that went there was in Oren Moverman’s 2014 Time Out of Mind, which got followed almost immediately by the Safdie Brother’s Heaven Knows What. Both pictures showcased compelling character stories of the homeless, stuck in a storm they might not probably survive while New York moved on, indifferent to their plight.

Logan George and Celine Held’s movie Topside follows in the previous’ footsteps but goes underground into the tunnels of the City. It is a sad truth that there are hundreds of people living surviving in squalor within the tunnels of New York’s massive MTA system. Topside focuses on a mother and child (Held and newcomer Zhalia Farmer). Nikki, the mother, scrapes for a living and tells her 5-year-old daughter Little she can only go topside (their term for above ground) once Little gets her wings.

Their communal fragility gets shattered when transit authority officers move in. Nikki and Little are forced to go above ground, emerging in what seems to be uptown (but is, for the keen observer, a mish-mash of footage shot in the Bronx — 170th St. and Nostrand Ave. inspired by the Freedom Tunnels). New York winters are harsh and Nikki, out in the cold open, has to find shelter for herself and Little.

Held’s direction is frenetic during these sequences, which contrasts the dark but golden warmth of the makeshift shelter her character lives in. The second she emerges onto the street, light crashes through, and Little, who’s never been above ground, is terrified. Movement, everywhere, people everywhere, sounds coming from all directions — this is where Topside goes into sensory overload and almost mimes the Safdies in energy.

Topside then makes a darker turn which has to be seen to be believed. Judging that Nikki is far from the best mother in the world — she can barely fend for herself — it seems to be the only logical step in a woman frantically searching for help in the wrong places. Held clearly has done an excellent job in studying the homeless, and giving her character a limited knowledge of resources available for her. Where I diverged a bit from the movie was in how Held (and George) chose to resolve Nikki’s situation. However, I realize that this is the only solution she can have, and it actually lands the movie with a poignant sense of tragedy mixed with hope.

Kudos to Held for looking like she hasn’t taken a shower in forever, and choosing her locations carefully. So many New York shots seem plastic; hers are entirely lived in and lit in ways that make the city a nightmare of urban chaos — which only mirrors Nikki’s own. With this movie, she announces herself as a bold filmmaker who can also act the crap out of herself and land a completely lived-in character that is flawed but trying to do the right thing, even when she makes some questionable choices.

Topside as of yet has no release date.

Grade: B+

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