Written and directed by Logan George and lead actress Celine Held, 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. Also starring: Zhaila Farmer, Fatlip and Jared Abrahamson.
Diving into this film it’s hard to get a read on the tone it’s going for, you’re thrown in cold to Nikki (Held) and Little’s (Farmer) homeless life and it takes some time to find its feet. Although even once it has, it’s still difficult to figure out what it’s truly going for, it’s a heavy tale of struggle, drug use and caring for children. There is a story to be found in that but the route that Topside takes is quite simplistic, it’s looking for a deeper reaction without going far enough to achieve it. It also doesn’t pick a clear strong focus or perspective, it splits itself between mother and daughter rather than trying to firmly tell the story through one pair of eyes. There’s not enough time spent building what their relationship is and how they connect with one another before everything gets thrown in the air. It needed to give you more reason to get invested in these characters other than relying on your sympathy for their vulnerability.
Visually everything works but there isn’t any particularly grabbing element. It does show a completely different side to New York, it makes zero attempt to try for cheap points with iconic or cityscape style shots. It’s a very close, intimate style, it does its best work when it’s enhancing the anxiety and fear of Little. It gets purposely claustrophobic as it mimics her attempt to shut out, and her mother attempts to shield her from, the noise and bright light which she’s unused to. It touches upon the right notes for sympathy and sadness, it captures their desperation and downward spiral.
Making any sort of film where you’re giving a heavy role to a child is always a risk but they did well to cast Zhaila Farmer. Little is the true heart to this story, it’s a shame not to see it focus more strongly on her, Farmer brings a shy and imaginative personality. It’s a portrayal filled with naivety and in a certain way relates to Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room, a child blissfully unaware of the harsh situation they exist in. The real surprise here is with Fatlip, he’s a huge asset to this cast, providing a bit more complexity and it’s disappointing he isn’t more closely involved in the story. Writer, director Celine Held does a solid job in front of the camera, it’s not a very unique role but she brings all the frantic, desolate, hopeless qualities that are needed to pull it off.
Topside unfortunately falls short of what it’s trying to achieve, only scratching the surface of its story, rather than building a deeper emotional connection. It explores struggle without giving a key focus or reason to do so, hitting a lot of familiar elements along the way. It has a strong cast, who all bring different personalities, but there isn’t the time to truly get to know them and their relationships. Ultimately, it leaves you wanting, we only see such a brief window into this life, more needed to be explored to really make an impact.