It’s rare to be able to say that a movie shows a side of New York you’ve never seen before, but “Topside” does just that. A subterranean drama whose first act is set below the city, where a downtrodden community has made a home of long-abandoned subway tunnels, this quietly affecting indie film from first-time helmers Logan George and Celine Held (who also stars) resides somewhere between “Dark Days” and “Leave No Trace” without feeling as familiar as its premise might suggest. That’s thanks not only to Held, who pulls double duty both in front of and behind the camera, but also to a moving performance by newcomer Zhalia Farmer that’s reminiscent of Quevanzané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Stars don’t come down this far,” Nikki (Held) tells her five-year-old daughter Little (Farmer) one night in their makeshift hovel. They’re eating peanut butter straight from the jar, mom stifling a cough from breathing in who knows what all day, and though their existence is meager it would appear to beat the alternative of emerging from the depths and entering society proper. Down here, they at least feel like they belong and can go about their business unbothered and unjudged — the few others who reside in these tunnels are in the same boat as them. That balance is part of what makes “Topside” work as well as it does. It doesn’t sugarcoat these people’s plight, but neither does it descend into the kind of miserablism we’ve seen far too many times already.
The film arrives in theaters two years after starting its run on the festival circuit, “premiering” at the canceled South by Southwest (where it won a jury prize for directing) and eventually making its way to Venice. In certain respects it’s just the kind of movie you’d hope to see in that setting: With no reputation preceding it, “Topside” is a pleasant, unassuming surprise that makes you feel as though you’ve discovered new talent. It’s also the kind of deeply humanist story the Dardenne brothers might tell, one that focuses on the day-to-day struggles of people most other movies don’t think to shine a light on, and makes you wish you could reach through the screen and help this mother-daughter duo — it’s not like any of the people they meet seem willing to.
Stars may not reach down this far, but Nikki still allows her daughter flights of fancy — literally, in the case of telling Little that sooner or later she’ll sprout wings. It’s the kind of throughline that runs the risk of being eye-rolling in its wistfulness, but here too Held and George exhibit restraint. Once forces beyond their control compel the two of them to go topside, it’s easy to see why they were so reluctant to: Everything about the above-ground world, from the bright lights to the constant stream of people shuffling past them, overwhelms the small child, whose eyes are more accustomed to the dark. If the film gets a little shakier in these scenes, which feel less assured than their low-key predecessors, that’s partly because things have gotten shakier for the protagonists. They’re displaced on unstable ground, with a system that doesn’t want them and Nikki’s substance abuse making the prospect of ever feeling settled again seem more distant with each passing moment.
Held and Farmer have natural onscreen chemistry, bringing an almost docudrama realism to their characters’ shared fate even as it teeters on tragedy. What ultimately keeps them — and “Topside” itself — afloat is a bond that, while far from impervious to the uncaring world around them, you spend the entire runtime hoping is deep enough to endure it.