This is a really gritty and entirely engaging little film. It’s about Nikki (co-director Celine Held) and her 5-year-old daughter Little (Zhaila Farmer) who’re living on the edge underground in a homeless camp beneath the city of New York. Their life is not easy by any stretch, but they have a warm bond and community and a place of their own. But when the powers that be decide to clear out the riffraff, Little is forced to accompany her mother into the unknown and noisy and VERY bright city. And the question becomes whether they will be able to survive and stay together up there.
When Little is taken from her quiet, dark home into the frenetic and freezing world of the topside, she’s terrified. It’s nothing like the world she’s imagined up there. And Nikki doesn’t know what to do. She’s a junkie who turns tricks to keep herself high and to make enough to take care of Little, and her first thought in this situation is to go to her pimp (Jared Abrahamson, American Animals) and ask for his help. But he’s not there for them and they find themselves on the street without a place to sleep or a plan.
And then, as they get onto a subway, Little and her mother are separated. I won’t go into what happens from there, but at the center of this film is a mother’s love and how that manifests. Celine Held and Zhaila Farmer spent months together building a relationship off-camera before the film began shooting, and it’s a big part of what makes this film work. The other thing is that Held and her co-director/writer Logan George previously made several documentaries about homelessness so they have an intimate feel for the subject. Held is amazing as the junkie mom who’d do anything for her sweet daughter. And first timer Farmer is a natural, not a cloyingly cute kid, but an honest depiction of a child in crisis.
Topside is not an easy film to watch, but it’s definitely worth seeing for its frank view of addiction and poverty and the effect they have on a family.