Topside was set to premiere at SXSW before COVID-19 forced it to be cancelled. It ended up winning a Special Jury Award in the virtual version of the fest as well as on for Best Technical Contribution at the Venice Film Festival. It also picked up a nomination for best film at the Montréal Festival of New Cinema. And it was in conjunction with that festival that I saw it.
In many cities there are large groups of underground dwellers in subway and other tunnels. Communities of homeless men, women and children living their lives under our feet. Marc Singer’s award-winning documentary Dark Days chronicled their existence back in 2000. Other films ranging from C.H.U.D.to Feral have dealt with or mentioned them. Topside, from writer/directors Logan George and Celine Held is the latest film to be set in that world.
Fighting homelessness and drug addiction, Nikki (Celine Held) lives in an abandoned Manhattan subway tunnel with her five year old daughter Little (Zhaila Farmer). John (Fatlip, rapper with the group Pharcyde), Little’s father and on again/off again partner of Nikki lives nearby. It isn’t an easy life but it’s a safe one. That is until a police raid forces them to go “topside” to avoid being caught and having Little taken by the authorities.
Much of this is shown from Little’s perspective, the camera frequently shooting not from her point of view but from her level. She’s never been out of the tunnel before and shooting like this Topside does a great job of capturing the kind of shock and terror a young child would feel going from the warm, safe existence they knew to the frigid, chaotic streets of NYC in the winter.
I usually review horror films, but this is horror of another kind. The real life horror of people in what is supposed to be a developed country having to live like this. Of what they have to go through on a night like this. And of a young child’s fear at what happens.
Held and Farmer give excellent performances in the lead roles. I was worried that Held may have stretched herself too thin taking on so many duties. She would hardly be the first filmmaker to make that mistake. But she nails it, helped along by a script that manages not to make her either an angel of poverty or an irresponsible and unsympathetic bitch. She comes across as a troubled and flawed woman, trying to battle demons both internal and external.
In the case of Farmer who hadn’t acted before, Held fed her her lines as they shot rather than try to have her memorize them. Granted she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but it worked very well. She’s also a natural when it comes to her expressions and body language. I don’t know whether to be impressed at her talent or worried she’s working from memory. According to Topside’s press kit, the casting director discovered her in a soup kitchen.
Topside is not an easy film to watch. It’s harsh, sad and at times extremely tense and suspenseful. The filmmakers weren’t out to sugarcoat homelessness and they didn’t. This is a movie that deserves to be seen but be prepared for it.
Topside most recently played the Montréal Festival of New Cinema and will be available to watch online through them until October 31st. I’m sure there will be more festival dates. The only website I could find for the film was the filmmakers’ site. Hopefully, they’ll update it with upcoming screenings.