Directors (and co-writers): Logan George & Celine Held
Cast: Zhaila Farmer, Celine Held, Jared Abrahamson, Fatlip
Deep in the underbelly of New York City, a five year-old girl and her mother live among a community that has claimed the abandoned subway tunnels as their home. – IMDB
What a fantastic way to start FNC 2020! Topside is a heart wrenching story through the eyes of a five year old little girl who has never been in contact with the “topside” and normal things that we all know: bright lights, bustling people, car honks and so much more who gets thrust into the real world as her and her mother suddenly has to escape their “home” and run through a world completely strange and one that she gets pulled by her mother from one place to the next as they seek overnight shelter. The story sets its foundation on the homeless and the community in the shadows while sharing a deeper story about this drug-addicted mother and her five year old daughter Little.
The story quickly sets up the scenario (if we couldn’t figure it out before) that this underground life is not suitable for Little (Zhaila Farmer) whether its watching her climbing through garbage/junk or through the graffiti-filled walls of the tunnels or the constant alert of the people around her when sounds approach and the arguments in the background especially between John (Fatlip), a leader of sorts of this underground group and her mother Nikki (Celine Held) as he urges her to leave so that Little can get proper education and life, discussions that fade into the background because Little doesn’t really understand any of it including shifting through notices of trespassing which she doesn’t know what it is either. A truth that gets further emphasized when her mother leaves on her many trips up top and as people scurry away, John tries to teach her how to subtract. All these things that puts the audience in the know as we can understand everything going on around her and can see the danger up ahead of having to leave without any choice despite the fantasy of the little world they live in where Little believes she can’t leave until her wings grow.
Its in the real world that the little conversations in the background the reality of Nikki’s life when she goes up top crashes with Little’s confused world as they try to find a place to stay. Jumping from one location to the next and trying to avoid the threat of losing Little when people call the authorities. The reality hits very fast as the story shifts over to Nikki’s point of the view after a turning point that creates an avenue to understand the character of Nikki and perhaps also a turning point of how she sees this situation that she’s been trying to hold one to so tightly. One of the best parts is how bustling New York City is shot through the eyes of Little with the light glares from the ceiling, the tall buildings, the loud chatter from all the people walking closely around them and so on that creates this overwhelming claustrophobic feeling.
The cast here from young Zhaila Farmer, director and writer and also actress Celine Held or Fatlip, they all deliver some great performances and some meaningful characters to the plot in general. Other than Little who doesn’t say a lot but emotes and reacts a great deal to the world below and above ground as she gets mesmerized and scared by everything that she hasn’t seen, all the characters have a purpose and their complexities from Nikki’s struggles to the two male characters that pop in and out of the scenes, John who wants Nikki to be leave for Little’s sake but also is her drug dealer underground and the character of Les (Jared Abrahamson) with a similar sort of deal who is a shady character that has this little bonding moment with Little but ends up offering a horrible deal to Nikki. Both of them are self-contradictory but also drive the story further.
Topside is a deeply impactful film that highlights not only a mother and daughter relationship but the struggles of homelessness. Its a heartbreaking story and one that truly hits harder and harder with every single realization that the story tells from the dangers that creep around them. Its also one that delivers a lot to think about in terms of the decisions made and when to let go. A fantastic story with great performances and a wonderful way to kick off the first movie of FNC 2020!