Literally up from the underground comes co-writers/co-directors Celine Held and Logan George’s top-shelf feature debut, Topside. The drama is about 5-year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer), who lives with her mother Nikki (Celine Held) in a homeless camp in an abandoned New York subway tunnel. Through a makeshift village of cardboard houses, Little plays with a community of underground dwellers looking out for each other. Nikki helps Little decorate their tiny home with homemade twinkling stars. Their neighbor John (Fatlip) has a pile of cats and is concerned about Little’s lack of education. He says as much to Nikki when she comes over to buy heroin.
Little’s netherworld is about to fall as the city is renovating the tunnel. Nikki holds onto her subterranean opiate lifestyle until eviction day, wherein she flees to the surface with Little, who has never seen it. She is immediately blinded by the fluorescents and sunlight of the surface world as she grew up in the dark. Her mom tries to figure out where they can get out of the cold without getting caught by police. She ends up knocking on the door of Les (Jared Abrahamson), who has an apartment full of heroin and women “working” to get it. This is the world Little walks into, holding her mother’s hand all the way. Soon it becomes apparent the daylight world is much darker than life underground.
I have seen a lot of movies about homelessness and street life. There has always been a gap between the achievements of the documentaries versus the narrative features on the subject. Documentaries like Streetwise are heart-wrenchingly brilliant, many dramas never quite catch it, either because they’re too clean or contrived. Topside closes that gap. It may be the best drama about street life I have ever seen. The narrative counterpart to the documentary Dark Days, it concerns New York’s “mole people” who live in the subways. It opens with a haunting quote from their leader, who says there are no children in their group, but some of the adults are as young as five.
“Nikki holds onto her subterranean opiate lifestyle until eviction day…”
Held and George make the genius move of presenting the first half from the child’s point of view. The camera follows Little through a world of play with adult matters being overheard behind cardboard walls. The topside world of the sun is presented as a horrifying blur, full of screaming about wanting to go home. This helps cut through all the exposition that drags down most films dealing with this subject. No tired social workers are explaining the insurmountable odds of the system. It recreates the immediacy of a child’s world, being pulled from one place to another by an unstable grown-up. In the second half, the filmmakers switch to Nikki’s vantage point. She’s just as lost and as overwhelmed as her kid. The audience is dropped into a swirling nightmare of streets where the nearest rung of the ladder is 5,000 feet in the air.
Held does genius work as Nikki, who has as many brightly colored flaws, like a junkie peacock. She presents an intricate architecture of a broken person whose attempts at motherhood are tainted with certain failure. It’s an honestly brutal performance, where any hearts of gold are gorged with smack. Farmer does an amazing job as well, delivering a crowning cinematic performance. Her energy is undeniable, as is the legitimacy of her pain and exhaustion. Musician Fatlip is wonderful as the moral anchor in the underworld, despite the hard drugs he slings. He straddles the line between good and evil with the intensity of a tightrope walker on a burning rope. Abrahamson is flat-out evil in a way that seems utterly realistic. He puts two extra big handfuls of fresh slime in his portrayal.
Overall, Topside is a masterpiece of the marginalized world rarely seen. It represents a major cinematic achievement by very talented creators. It gets my highest recommendation.
"…represents a major cinematic achievement by very talented creators."