“Uncorked” kicks off on a delicious note of culture clash. As hectoring hip-hop pounds over the opening credits, the movie cuts back and forth between the owner of a Southern barbecue joint preparing the day’s fixins — grilling the pork ribs, stirring the tangy red sauce — and California vintners working their chem-lab alchemy to convert luscious green grapes into wine. There’s a parallel meticulousness that tells us we’re seeing variations on the same palate-tickling ideal. Yet the sequence, inevitably, also conjures up a ripe culinary class war of lowbrow v. highbrow.
All those dynamics are at play in “Uncorked,” an earnest, scrappy, and finally touching drama about a young man from Memphis who’s got a dream — he’s a wine buff who wants to become a sommelier — but if he follows it, it will tear him away from everything his father yearned for him to be. That, of course, is part of why it’s a tasty dream.
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), tall and pensive, with a chiseled fade and a look that’s kind and friendly but deeply serious, is a bit of a paradox — a fellow who’s completely sincere, without an ironic bone in his body, yet he keeps most of what he’s thinking to himself. (That’s his irony.) The Mauritanian-American actor Mamoudou Athie draws from a well of skill that allows him to play someone of charismatic passion who holds the best of himself in reserve. That’s what keeps us glued to him. We’re scanning for those moments when he shows his hand.
Elijah, who is in his late 20s, grew up in Memphis and works at a fabled rundown barbecue shack owned and operated by his father, Louis (Courtney B. Vance) — the man in the opening credits — who took it over from his father, who launched it with money he won in a dice game in 1960. (At that point, no local bank would give a black man a loan.) Louis, a sternly witty and demanding taskmaster who built a comfortable life for his family, is planning for Elijah to take over the business the same way that he did. And why wouldn’t he? Louis started teaching Elijah to cook when he was two. And Elijah knows the ins and outs of “the stand,” as they call the restaurant, with its lines of loyal customers seated next to no-atmosphere paneled walls and ancient framed photographs of soul-brother heroes. “This place is historic,” says Louis. “Frankie Beverly had a stroke here.”
The rib-on-his-shoulder bluster with which Louis declares his legacy is cranky and irresistible, and Courtney B. Vance gives a superlative performance; he makes Louis the kind of tough-love pop you can’t run from and can’t quite please either. But now that the time has come to learn the business, Elijah keeps opting out. He’s got his head in a different place: the wine store where he holds down a second job, stocking shelves with bottles of Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis, and where he also helps to run the local wine club, in which membership gets you bimonthly tastings and a free subscription to Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Early on, when Tanya (Sasha Compère) wanders into the store, and Elijah shows off his connoisseurship by giving her his here’s-how-wine-is-just-like-hip-hop spiel (he starts off by describing chardonnay as “the Jay-Z of wine,” and by the time he gets to Drake and riesling you almost think he’s onto something), it’s fun to see this kid from the sticks try to find a cool context for his hobby-turned-fixation. But when he talks about wanting to go to school to become a Master Sommelier, of which there are only 230 in the world, and we think, “Really? He seems totally out of his depth,” the movie is way ahead of us. It knows how little Elijah knows; it understands that in his oenophile obsession he’s a diamond in the rough. That’s what gives his learning curve an unexpected excitement.
“Uncorked” is a follow-your-brainiac-dream movie, like “The Paper Chase” or “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” and it’s also a horn-locking father-and-son heart-tugger and an ode to the joy of tastebuds, like “Big Night” or “Ratatouille.” At times it’s like a low-budget, wide-eyed version of all those films. Yet the writer-director, Prentice Penny, is alive to the details of what’s new about his subject: a young man of color trying to bust out of the box of what’s expected of him — not just by his father, but by society at large.
Elijah has gotten his flavor jones from his family; it’s there in the choosy way that Louis parses the hickory, cherry, and apple logs he uses to smoke his meats. The film suggests a link between the nuances of those aromatic woods and the insane flavor psychedelia (“I’m tasting grapefruit and a hint of coriander, with a chocolate finish…”) that drives the higher wine love.
Yet Elijah, in applying to study for a diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers (a rigorous year of training that’s about memorizing an encyclopedia’s worth of taste sensations fused with micro facts of distillery), is also blazing his own trail. He’s heading into uncharted terroir. When Tanya, on their first date, asks him why he loves wine, we think we’re going to get a speech about the glories of sensuality, but instead Elijah talks about how he never got to travel much, and says that when he’s tasting a great wine from Italy or Spain he feels like he’s literally transported there. For those of us who love a good glass of wine (but can’t begin to get into the whole rarefied metaphors-of-the-earth wine-tasting thing), that’s a very nifty definition of wine passion. You taste that ruby-red or yellow-gold elixir, and you’re somewhere else.
When Elijah, at a family dinner, talks about the sommelier program, Louis zings him with the line, “Hey, if you want to tell people what to drink with their chitlins, I’m fine.” Elijah befriends a couple of fellow students who are officious wine geeks (one of them is nicknamed Harvard), but the characters are thinly sketched, and there are times when you see too much of the situational blueprint beneath the screenwriting, as when Elijah’s mother, the saucy Sylvia (Niecy Nash), suffers a cancer relapse right in the middle of his student-exchange trip to Paris. Yet the actors are good enough to keep it all grounded.
As Elijah grows more comfortable with the wine argot, Athie’s acting gains a touch of swagger, so that when he’s talking about how “wines from the Rhone Valley have crazy tannic undertones,” you ride right along with him. And Prentice Penny stages “Uncorked” with a real-world sense of how ambition, money, family pressure, family tradition, and a society built around the cultivation of dreams can fuse, in unexpectedly pungent ways, to form the soul of a person. “Uncorked,” in its way, is a Horatio Alger story of upward mobility — a tale of finding your bliss up a vertical cliff. Wine movies, outside of documentaries (like the 2013 “Somm,” about four candidates out to pass this very exam), have always been an odd genre, since the key dramatic activity on display — the savoring of all those subliminal flavors — is something we more or less have to take on faith. But “Uncorked” convinces you that wine itself is worth having faith in.