Another film seeking an emotional response is one that was set to premiere at SXSW and won an award there virtually, which now travels from Austin to Venice. Logan George and Celine Held’s “Topside” tells a tragically realistic story of a homeless mother and her daughter who live in the tunnels below New York City and struggle to find their way back to what they call home after their life is disrupted. Everyone here means well, and there’s a commitment to the entire venture that’s admirable, but this falls deep into what is often referred to as “poverty porn,” something that feels more manipulative in its depiction of misery than genuinely empathetic or artistic. Yes, there are stories like this taking place every day in major cities, but the impact feels cheaper because of the way it places so much narrative weight on the danger of a five-year-old’s existence. Putting kids in this kind of jeopardy has inherent emotional power that will work for some viewers, and I get that, but I felt throughout like my buttons were being pushed, and that never allowed me to lose myself in this story emotionally. Move me, don’t manipulate me.
Nikki (co-director Held) lives in the tunnels under Manhattan with her daughter Little (a natural Zhaila Farmer). After a raid, they’re forced to the surface, where Nikki struggles through the night trying to find a place for them to stay before trying to find their way back to the underground community when it’s safe again. It leads the pair into the den of a dealer played charismatically by Jared Abrahamson and through a city that feels even more dangerous than the one underground.
There are genuine, grounded performances throughout “Topside” that clearly emerge from a cast and crew willing to look at people who are often ignored in society. That’s admirable, for sure, but there’s still a sense that this is a story told by outsiders in a manner that lacks lived-in depth. Most of all, putting a young child in mortal danger by sending her through a wintry night with a woman who may not be capable of ensuring her safety has undeniable power but it just pushed too hard into exploitation for this viewer. Yes, there are duos like Nikki & Little struggling on the edge of society right now. But just seeing them isn’t enough and “Topside” never quite asks the deep questions about why that is.
My final Venice film tells a story from the other side of the world but Jing Wang’s “The Best is Yet to Come” has a similar disappointing energy in which just telling an untold chapter of world history doesn’t inherently make for good art. Working with the great auteur Jia Zhang-ke, Jing Wang has made a film from the “heroic journalist” subgenre, one that charts the trajectory of a young writer who discovers that the story that’s going to change his life isn’t as simple as he first presumes it to be. I’m a sucker for a film that elevates the importance of journalism, especially in a country that places the restrictions on it that China does, but this is relatively generic filmmaking, a movie that never elevates above the details of what really happened to transform reality into art.
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