March 24th, 2022




It’s great to get a reminder of how powerful cinema can be. It can tell a powerful story or show us a side of life that we might never know existed. Topside was a movie that slipped under the radar for me, where it won a 2021 award at SXSW, but I had not even heard about it until its release this week. It’s the kind of movie that Roger Ebert would love. It has the roots of many other independent films and reminds me of the Safdie brothers Heaven Knows What, Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart, or various documentaries of Werner Herzog. With Topside there’s an authenticity that’s palpable. Director Logan George and Celine Held force us to look, ask us to walk in another person’s shoes, and have empathy for humans that we see everyday. Topside is a fascinating story of a single mother and her daughter, homeless, living underground in subway stations, and trying to survive from minute to minute. This is a powerful example of independent filmmaking.

The young girl is named Little (Zhalia Farmer) and her mother is Nikki- played by writer/director Held. They live in the underground subway tunnels of New York, a place where the homeless have constructed their own mini-cities, filled with tents, and old mattresses. The catch for young Little is that this is all she knows, where her mother tells her they can’t go Topside until they get their wings. Behind the fantasy that Nikki has created for her daughter is not the reality of life, where Nikki’s drug addiction leaves Little in the care of others at times, and the constant fear of being discovered by police drives the paranoia to terrifying heights. This is their reality, and the audience is placed by their side, catching a glance of what it’s like to live this way, to feel empathy, and sadness because a story similar to Topside is all too common.

What one will have to decide for themselves is if Topside has an eye for poverty porn or if it is a genuine approach to understanding these characters. I greatly believe it’s the latter, where the judgment for Nikki as a mother can be saved for another time, and a glimmer of hope is captured in the eyes of young Zhalia Farmer. The writing by George and Held is an excellent structure as well. They take the time to establish the environment, the community of people around that care for Little, and a sense of claustrophobia from what it would be like to live under a major city. In between the natural fears for Little’s well being, are the genuine moments of Nikki giving her daughter hope. She points to the stars and tells her that they will fly away someday and it’s easy to believe because it’s the goal for us all at some point in time.

The midway through the second and start of the third act is where Topside becomes more difficult to swallow. We soon see Nikki bring Little to her drug dealer friend Les (Jared Abrahamson), a painful moment, where Little must sit alone, surrounded by random people in their drug induced states, while her mother is in a separate room. It’s a darker image of a mother doing all she can to provide for her daughter and yet, in the final act, Nikki has the tragic moment of losing Little on a subway car- which we then truly see how far a mother will go to rescue their child. It’s easy to say that Nikki is a bad mother but it’s also unique to see two versions of survival. A mother looking for any way to keep herself going, while a young child must grow up faster than ever anticipated.

It’s within the cinema verite-style of storytelling that makes Topside great. It is similar to the early works of Scorsese, has a documentarian spirit, where the camera and the setting capture the story instead of manipulating the audience. What you see is what you are getting. It’s rooted in reality the way a director such as Andrea Arnold shows a slice of life, the way Chloe Zhao captured the moment in Nomadland, or how Sean Baker has created his own style of cinema with The Florida Project and recently Red Rocket. Topside is just as good as all of those. There’s a bright young star in Zhalia Farmer- but the biggest takeaway is that Topside is breathtaking, gut twisting cinema from an excellent team in Logan George and Celine Held. I cannot wait to see what they do next. They’re ready to spread their wings and fly Topside.



Written by: Leo Brady

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