It must be a roller coaster of a year for veteran short filmmakers Celine Held and Logan George, even if we take the pandemic out of account. First their debut feature Topside was selected for the Narrative Feature Competition line-up at the SXSW festival. Yet that festival was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic days before it would take place (they still won a Special Jury Award). And now their film, a small, intimate drama about a homeless mother and daughter in New York, is part of this year’s Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival. Returning to a subject they already covered in two documentary projects before, Held and George reduce the issue to two people, which results in a more intimate story but perhaps loses a bit of focus on the underlying and broader issues regarding homelessness. Still, Topside is a strong debut with two captivating lead performances (one of which is Held herself) that should be an easy sell on the American market.
Five-year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer) lives with her mother Nikki (Held) in an abandoned subway tunnel under New York City. In her short lifetime the girl has never been above ground, but when the police mandate an eviction she and her mother are forced to climb their way up into the city’s hustle and bustle. They go on an odyssey through the underbelly in search of food and shelter, which forces Nikki into making drastic choices and Little into a traumatic experience of a world that is completely new to her.
Topside has a gritty realism that is somewhat akin to Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always from earlier this year, another film dealing with the social issues that plague America. Similarly shot handheld, Topside finds grime and sleaze easily as it charts Little and Nikki’s journey. It is a journey of misery with an ending that is probably the best we as an audience can hope for. But what keeps the film from veering into ‘misery porn’ territory is the tangible, loving relationship between mother and daughter, the product of two strong performances by Held and the very young Farmer (only two years older than her character). The latter’s performance will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Quvenzhané Wallis’ Oscar-nominated turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that plays somewhat in the same thematic space. Solid supporting work by Jared Abrahamson as a questionable pimp/drug dealer and former Pharcyde rapper Fatlip as John, Nikki’s friend and confidant in the tunnels, make for a lived-in ensemble of characters that would go unnoticed in day-to-day life, either consciously or unconsciously. Luckily, Held and George do not look the other way, which gives people like Nikki and John a voice.
In an intimate story like this the acting is obviously front and center, but what elevates Topside is also its cinematography (by long-time collaborator Lowell A. Meyer) and soundscape. Lighting and coloring make the tone of the image warmer and deeper in the tunnels, yet cooler and harsher up top, thereby reflecting Little’s safe vs. non-safe spaces. Her mood is similarly underlined in the first minutes she goes ‘topside’: an oppressive cacophony of street sounds (which in a magical moment drown out as she sees daylight for the first time), shaky cam, and quick editing mimic the chaos in Little’s head caused by all these new and scary impressions.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at Topside, it is perhaps that the film contains little exploration of Nikki’s background and how she got ‘down below’. That was not Held’s and Logan’s intent, but it makes the film feel momentary and small. A minor issue that does not prevent Topside from being a very promising narrative debut from this young director duo, and it will be interesting to see what they tackle next. As a portrait of homelessness in New York, and in particular the dangers and pitfalls homeless women have to navigate, Topside is heartfelt and unmanipulated drama that deserves distribution.