Review: Festival favorite ‘Topside’ eventually loses its most alluring aspects

A young girl in the movie “Topside.”
Zhaila Farmer in the movie “Topside.”
(Vertical Entertainment)

In Logan George and Celine Held’s festival-favorite debut, “Topside,” we are witness to a mercurial ecosystem deep below the frenzied surface of New York. Mother Nikki (played by co-director Held) and her 5-year-old daughter Little (Zhaila Farmer) make their home within the dilapidated architecture of abandoned subway tunnels and endure the constant threat of being forced out by city officials.

Nikki, in spite of her own issues, is fiercely maternal and understands the risks inherent to seeking out help. From Nikki’s loathsome pimp trying to exploit Little to concerned shelter staff and city workers who attempt to call on city resources and supports, we are reminded several times over the course of “Topside” that help — whether well-intentioned or more clearly underhanded — is not to be trusted.

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George and Held’s film makes good work of realizing the worlds that Little moves through, both above and below, with an emphasis on the emotive and sensorial. Dialogue more often than not takes a back seat to more experiential modes of establishing a story world — it is a choice that speaks clearly to the urgency of Nikki and Little’s lives as well as the mythologies they have crafted in order to endure it.

While “Topside” is without a doubt a film that lives within its own immediacy, it also feels somewhat entrenched within the hopeless inevitability of its own story. The frantic final acts sees our identification adjust from Little to Nikki and, in doing so, the movie loses much of the magnetism that imbued its stark realism, turning instead toward more overly familiar narrative movements. In the end, the most alluring aspect of “Topside” — its capacity for embodied feeling — is perhaps the one that was most cut short.


Not rated

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Playing: Starts March 25, Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also available on VOD