The indie drama “Topside” opens with a startling image: a five-year-old girl sleeping on the ground with a beam of light shining on her from above. She’s underground living in the tunnels of New York beneath the subway system and she’s awoken by workers with flashlights. Worse, her mother is nowhere to be seen and she mills around with other homeless people, watching cartoons on her screen device until she arrives.
The directorial debut of Celine Held and Logan George—Held also stars as the mother Nikki—“Topside” is inherently heartbreaking, and this deep-dive into the lives of the discarded and forgotten struggling to live on the margins is emotionally bruising, especially when scenes of much fear and uncertainty are seen through the girl’s anxious perspective.
Struggling with addiction, Nikki (Held) lives underground in squalor with her little girl Little (Zhaila Farmer), in filthy and decrepit makeshift homes among a transient community that has claimed the abandoned subway tunnels as their home. Living in the nearby vicinity is John (Fatlip from the rap group Pharcyde), the biological father/sometimes partner of Nikki, but their relationship is deeply stressed and he’s not much of a father and dealing with anger issues. Above them is “topside,” the world above that Little rarely visits and sees as something of a fable to one day visit.
Their lives are rough and meager but exacerbated by the strain of their constant battling, John believing Little deserves a better life and should be in school and Nikki completely distrusting of a system that has clearly screwed her over. And things go from bad to worse, when a sudden police-mandated eviction forces mother and daughter to flee their homes aboveground into a brutal winter night.
“Topside” becomes even more grueling after that, Little overwhelmed by the noisy, chaotic experiences aboveground and Nikki trying to find shelter for the two of them. Shot in a raw, handheld manner by cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer (“Thunder Road”), “Topside” can be a little hard to watch, a mix of horror for what this child has to endure, and heartbreaking empathy for a mother who’s clearly been abused and doesn’t know how to properly care for her child, much less herself.
Nonetheless, “Topside,” which was meant to debut earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival before the pandemic made the festival moot, is a startling, distressing debut that forces the viewer to not look away at the dire situation many homeless people face, instead, immersing them in many social horrors of mental illness, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and worse. Those who have seen the 2000 documentary “Dark Days” from director Marc Singer, known for its haunting DJ Shadow score, will be on familiar ground and cinematic territory of loneliness, despair, and bleak futures.
However, if there’s a knock on “Topside,” it’s perhaps how miserablist and nightmarish it can get in the way many neo-realist films of this ilk are wont to do. When Nikki goes to visit her hostile former white trash pimp (a deeply convincing Jared Abrahamson), the vile situations Little has to witness and experience is deeply traumatizing. “Topside” fairs better with the idea of humanizing those on the fringes, Zhaila Farmer is terrific and the desperation Held expresses is gutwrenching. These aren’t performances to soon forget.
“Topside” has an ephemeral fairy tale tragic quality to it, Nikki and Little sharing a special bond and secret about “their wings,” a metaphoric story she tells her daughter about hope and the lights aboveground that one day may shine good fortune on them all. There’s little hope, optimism, or rays of light to be found here, but in shining a stark and unflinching light at the marginalized, Held and George have made an arresting debut that certainly poises them as ones to watch in the future. [B]