A mother and her daughter emerge from a world they’ve helped to create, one where they find love, community, and a sense of belonging. They’re expelled forth, not by choice but because those that run the greater environment around them deem it to be unsuitable. But when the mother, Nikki, brings young Little “topside”, it’s the beginning of the end for both.
Despite being in quarantine and barely leaving this house, I feel privileged to have seen some outstanding movies in 2020, largely thanks to the amazing work being done by film festivals and their teams across this continent. Nothing, however, has affected me so deeply and shaken me emotionally more than Logan George and Celine Held’s absolutely stirring debut, Topside. Their unapologetic and impeccably realized work has been recognized with nominations and awards from every festival it’s played so far – Venice, SXSW, and now the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal – and for good reason. Topside is unmissable, and features some of the best technical and emotionally resonant filmmaking you’re likely to find this year.
Topside tells the story of heroin addict Nikki (Held) and her five-year-old daughter Little (Zahlia Farmer), who have made a home in the infamous tunnels beneath New York City. Colloquially known as “Mole People”, thanks to Jennifer Toth’s 1997 book of the same title, the pair and their fellow members of society’s fringes live in abandoned subway tunnels under the bustling streets, scrounging for what they need to survive. Nikki comes from above, and goes “topside” frequently to earn a meagre living as a sex worker to support both her habit and her daughter. Little, on the other hand, doesn’t know much about the world above and has never even seen daylight. Her father (rapper Fatlip from The Pharcyde, in a brief but excellent performance) lives in the tunnels too, but separately. Still, he urges Nikki to join society with Little, to enroll her in school and somehow have a normal life. Little seems relatively content with her situation, knowing nothing different, but Nikki reassures her that one day they’ll both be able to join the world over their heads, once she “sprouts her wings.”
This curiously-idyllic life is disrupted when officials from the Metro Transit Authority burst into the community of residents, forcing them to scatter and retreat to the aboveground world. It’s here that Topside presents the first of it’s earth-shatteringly disturbing moments. Nikki and Little make their escape, bursting into the sunlight and all the bustle and cacophonous noise that New York has to offer, and it’s immediately evident how traumatic this is for the five-year-old that has never seen the sky. Sensory overload doesn’t begin to describe it, and even if you grew up in a city or even this exact city, the film plunges you into Little’s confusion and disorientation as the handheld camera work feels like it’s struggling to keep up with the pair as they race frenetically through the streets. All the while, it’s punctuated with Little’s anguished wails. Topside probably doesn’t qualify as a typical horror film, but this scene is as scary and upsetting to me as anything I’ve seen in horror this year.
The remaining runtime of Topside depicts Nikki desperately trying to keep herself and Little safe, if only for a moment. There’s a scene in a public bathroom that’s so familiar to me as a parent, but is amplified a hundredfold by Nikki and Little’s desperate situation. There’s a disturbing – and heartbreaking in it’s predictability – encounter with Nikki’s dealer and pimp Les (Jared Abrahamson). And after all that, the film’s climax absolutely wrecked me. Despite opening with fairytale vibes, Topside isn’t interested in telling idealized stories. It’s at least as well-realized and well-observed as The Florida Project or Beasts of the Southern Wild, and is willing to present the same kind of heartbreak as those films via it’s revelation of a protagonist in Farmer. Her portrayal of Little is every bit as compelling as Brooklynn Prince’s Moonee or Quvenzhané Wallis’s Hushpuppy.
A number of films have examined stories of poverty within large cities in the way that Topside does. Two of my favourites, Tsai-Ming Liang’s Stray Dogs and Mark Singer’s ground-and-heartbreaking 2000 documentary Dark Days both depict the way that people can and do survive (if only barely) inside a concrete prison of skyscrapers and subway tunnels, ignored and unseen by the people who live beside, or on top of them. Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite deals with some of the same themes, but in a much more exaggerated and calculated way. All of those films affected me in a visceral way, but Topside’s portrayal of Little, bolstered by an understated but unforgettable performance by Farmer, is something different. Tinged with magical realism while depicting the underworld where the film starts, then exploding into the harshness of the ‘real world’, Topside is a grim but intimately-observed rare gem, one that I cannot believe is a directorial debut from Held and George.
Topside is playing as part of the Festival du nouveau cinema out of Montreal, which is currently running virtually until October 31. You can get tickets to virtual screenings at this link.