At a greyhound station in the middle of Texas, directors Chris Filippone and Jamie Meltzer capture the first moments of freedom that former convicts experience in their documentary short Huntsville Station. Rather than pass any judgement on why the men were incarcerated, the film focuses on the overwhelming and often silent joy of the people on the outside of society. In this way it makes a perfect companion for the feature it was attached to.
Husband and wife filmmaking pair Logan George and Celine Held have made a handful of short films over the last few years, but with Topside they make their feature debut. In their Safdie Brothers influenced film, they shine a spotlight on the lives of unhoused people living in the underground tunnels in New York City.
Five-year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer) has lived her entire life in a makeshift community in the abandoned subway tunnels with her mother Nikki (played by one of the directors Celine Held). When an upcoming renovation to the tunnel requires the pair to vacate abruptly, Little is greeted with the harsh florescent lighting and sensory overload that she had never been forced to endure previously. With no concrete plan or next steps, the pair traverse a uniquely terrifying version of the city.
Topside asks a lot emotionally of its audience. Nikki is an addict whose supplier arranges for her to sleep with men in exchange for her fix. In her current state, it is understandable to believe that she should not be in charge of Little. Little herself show signs of being stunted. She has never had any education and living so long underground has left her with little to no understanding of the world. Though, for all the reasons why their relationship is unhealthy, they share an undeniable love, and a daughter and mother’s bond is precious.
The emotional turmoil of the film comes to a head in the film’s elongated climax. These minutes star Nikki exclusively, and Held’s acting becomes a major selling point of the film. The camera holds tight on the staring actress while her appearance becomes increasingly disheveled and her performance distraught.
Topside is an excellent first feature from the directorial pair. Celine Held proves to be a triple threat as her performance stands out in addition to co-writing and co-directing the film. While some moments may briefly dip into manipulative melodrama, they are few and far between. Instead, the emotional extremes explored in the film are largely warranted, and the climax is a devastating piece of cinema.