Beneath the New York City subway system lies a shadowy labyrinth teeming with people living on the margins of society. It’s a natural cinematic backdrop, and the 2000 documentary “Dark Days” probed it so well it has served as the last word on the subject for the past 20 years. (Before that, Jennifer Toth’s 1997 book “The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City” laid out the ecosystem.) However, the riveting drama “Topside” finds a unique way in. The directorial debut from co-directors Logan George and Celine Held (who also stars) enacts a tense mother-daughter survivor story around the prospects of raising a child in that darkness, only to find that the world above contains much scarier prospects.
Despite its rough-hewed aesthetic and a jittery, moment-to-moment pace, “Topside” adopts a familiar subgenre of kid-in-peril movies, from “Little Fugitive” to “The Florida Project.” Much of the drama takes place from the innocent perspective of five year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer), who roams her subterranean surroundings with unfettered curiosity. Her parents are hopeless junkies resigned to a daily struggle, but haven’t yet sorted out how the growing Little fits into that. Her father, John (hip-hop artist Fatlip), thinks she belongs “topside” — codeword for the aboveground — in a school that can address her needs, but her mother Nikki (Held) can’t reconcile that idea with the pressure to be a doting mother under the most dire of circumstances. From minute one, the situation is hopeless, though Little can’t conceive of it as such.
That conundrum coalesces into an eerie, disquieting inevitability in the opening minutes, just in time for MTA officials to burst into the family’s rocky hiding spot. There’s little time to contemplate the serendipity of that twist, as Nikki grabs her daughter and speeds straight into the light, forcing Little into an abrupt confrontation with the jarring lights and screams of modern urban life.
It’s a remarkable transition that unfolds with brisk camerawork and busy sound design that, for the traumatized Little, may as well be a sci-fi nightmare. Cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer’s handheld approach captures the immediacy of the circumstances without letting things get too woozy, as Nikki speeds through the streets in desperate search for shelter. While movies like “Room” and “Leave No Trace” have mined this territory before, the co-directors energize the proceedings with the naturalistic immediacy of a Dardenne brothers movie (although the Safdie brothers’ recent spate of grimy New York tales come to mind as well).
Nothing in “Topside” can outdo the urgency of its initial passage, but the pace is relentless nonetheless. While Held delivers an unnerving and sophisticated performance as a troubled woman compelled by maternal instincts to protect her daughter against an unforgiving world, Farmer emerges as a true revelation, delivering the most sensitive and sophisticated child performance since Quevanzané Wallis blazed across the screen in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Unlike that movie, however, we’re left to imagine the magical realism that informs Little’s worldview, as her mother feeds her a mythology rather than attempting to explain the sheer mania around them. Initially told she can’t go topside until she grows wings, Little experiences the city as a jumbled mass of noise and machinery uninterested in explaining itself to her, and the movie excels at clarifying the dread of the unknown that enshrouds her at every turn.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t deliver the same level of sophistication when it comes to its small ensemble, but it gives them just enough to do for the narrative to keep moving forward. When the pair visit a menacing downtown pimp (played by Jared Abrahamson, best known to date as the vet who goes apeshit on “Ramy”), the filmmakers risk pushing the movie into familiar territory, but the bleak showdown ends with an even scarier twist that sets up the frantic energy of the last act. While “Topside” can’t help but lose some of its pull when the perspective shifts from Little to her mother, the story arrives at a powerful revelation that seems at once unavoidable and gut-wrenching in its implications.
The whole concept of a lo-fi New York movie shot on the streets has been done and redone so many times that it risks cliché, but “Topside” works as well it does because it never tries to reinvent that playbook. Instead, it trusts the nature of Little’s bond with her mother to compel this unnerving nighttime odyssey forward, until it arrives at a point where Little’s shock at the world around her becomes our own.
“Topside” premiered in Venice International Film Critics’ Week. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.