Another day, another round of quarantine. Looks like I am stuck to streaming offerings for the time being, and that means that Netflix, Disney+ and maybe Sky Go on occasion are going to be my go-to’s for new movies. Who knows, I may even try out a few things I might not normally look into. Case-in-point: Uncorked, which popped (ha) up on my Netflix feed earlier this week.
Why would I not usually have given this a look? Well, I’ll be honest and say that African-American family dramas are not something that I gravitate naturally towards. I also have little appreciation for wine (count me as one of the guys who will nod politely as the server says absolutely anything about texture, flavour, notes and quality). I also can’t say that the director, known almost entirely for his work as a sitcom producer, filled me with much confidence. Still, decent cast and I’ll admit that the premise was interesting. Was Uncorked worth taking out of the off-license? Or was it more of a table-stripper?
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) works at his father Louis’ (Courtney B. Vance) BBQ restaurant, that he is being lined up to inherit one day, with the pressure of “learning the business” growing day-by-day. But Elijah has other dreams, namely of becoming a master sommelier, and enrolls in a course to pursue this goal, against his father’s wishes. Amid family illness and financial strain, Elijah struggles to be true to himself and to be the man that his father wants him to be.
Maybe there is something in this quarantine after all, at least when it comes to film. I suppose that it has to be good for something. Because we are now two for two when it comes streaming option movies that I want into with low expectations, almost out of obligation, that turned out to be quite good. Prentice Penny may not have much of a directorial pedigree or legacy, but Uncorked is an excellent way for him to get one started. I certainly did not expect to find something of this quality when I stuck Uncorked on, with an eye initially half on my smartphone. More fool me I suppose.
What I really liked about Uncorked is how it says a whole lot, while really saying very little at all in terms of spoken dialogue. It’s a family drama, it’s a coming-of-age tale, it is at times a story about romance at different ages and times. These are all the main features of the film. But it is also a film about determination, about the contrast and comparisons between the state of race on either side of the Atlantic, about the unspoken strain of family expectations upon different family members. Uncorked is a polished, well-thought exploration of all of these things, well-paced and obviously crafted with no small amount of care.
If nothing else, Uncorked is a father-and-son film, and boy did it resonate. I can’t be the only one who see’s a working-class father and a son with his eyes on a higher strata struggling to engage with each other, outside of shop-talk and sports, and started thinking about my own situation at times. Penny captures that awkwardness, that fear of direct confrontation, that inability to really understand the experiences of the other side, remarkably well, and it is the emotional driving force of Uncorked, ahead of Elijah’s dream and his mother’s battle with cancer.
A scene on this topic where, on the verge of heading to Paris, Elijah gifts his father a bottle of red is so astonishingly real: in Elijah’s stuttering efforts to approach his parent, in his father’s facade of dismissive disinterest in the gift (“Your mother will drink it” might be the biggest gut-punch of the script) and in the way the scene quickly devolves into an argument. Both sides are ripe with meaning: Elijah in the way he is failing to understand how his choices are making his father feel, and Louis in how he is failing to fully appreciate the gesture of reconciliation his son is attempting.
Yes, parts of it are a tad predictable in terms of narrative beats, but Uncorked captures something very engaging in its central relationship. There is something so affecting in how a father can look at the path his son is taking, and feel unhappy both from a sense that his son is making a different choice to him and from a certain kind of mournful jealously, looking at a road not taken. In the same note, it is just as affecting seeing a son feel increasingly trapped by the railroad of paternal guidance. Both Athie and Vance are great, between Elijah’s constrained emotions just bursting to get let out, and Louis’ settled old-school satisfaction with having such things buried. It’s refreshing to see a father/son tale told in an African/American community setting, where stories so often depend upon the crutch of an absent father figure. Family dinners form centerpieces that almost mock the distance between father and son (and offer some opportunity for levity, such as when a cousin mistakes sommelier for Somali).
But Uncorked manages to also effectively add a few more layers as well. It’s a heartwarming depiction of two romantic relationships: Elijah and Tanya (Sasha Compere) who are just starting out and his father and mother, Sylvia (Niecy Nash). Nash, whom I last remember seeing in Reno 911!, is great in the film, adding some nice comedic moments (though not as good as Vance attempting to ply drinks from a bartender with a promise to forgive slavery) and some genuinely effecting depictions of serious illness later on. Her back and forth with Vance is a great representation of an older, comfortable couple. The film is also an examination of just what it means to grow up and choose a direction, with much of Uncorked’s third act revolving around Elijah’s ability to stick with something and see it through, against a desire to settle into familiar patterns. It’s an ode to BBQ ribs as much as it is to wine at points. And even beyond all of that there’s also time for some nods to deeper family problems, with Elijah’s sister Brenda (Kelly Jenrette) facing different expectations from her parents, and struggling with being judged on a different curve.
And it also happens to be a wine movie, and boy is that a niche sub-genre. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around wine the way others do – I simply have neither the taste-buds nor the patience for it – but can appreciate the effort made to educate in Uncorked, with Elijah comparing different types of white to hip/hop and rap singers (Chardonney is Jay-Z, Pinot Grigio is Kanye). It’s also not lost on me the point that Penny makes, that Elijah and his father obsess about their own arts to a similar extent (Louis talks about wood for the BBQ burner like Elijah does about the taste of wine). In the end though, wine is just a canvass for Penny to tell his story on, and is actually fairly far from the main point: Elijah’s obsession could have been painting or poetry and the effect would have been largely the same, as long as it was something that African-Americans are not popularly associated with.
Penny approaches that very topic subtly enough, with Elijah never pointedly encountering racism in his quest: his white classmates and white teachers never seem to be an impediment from that sense, aside from an awkward financial entanglement around halfway through. This is OK, as Uncorked’s approach to race is more in the line of Elijah breaking free from prejudices rooted in Africa-American family and community stereotypes than overcoming those held by people in his path. His father thinks that wine culture is an elitist thing he and his son have no place in, explicitly asking his son at one point if he thinks himself above BBQ; there is a hint of self-harming prejudice in that. It can be claimed that silent racism may be a factor in parts of the film’s finale, though this is all eye of the beholder stuff: that ending is bound to garner the film some unhappiness from audiences more used to a traditional narrative of overcoming the odds, but I for one find it refreshingly honest, and true to the story and themes that Penny was trying to get across.
Penny, in terms of visuals, has only a few shorts under his belt, so Uncorked is not a film that will be winning any cinematography awards. It is shot in a solid, simple fashion: barring a few ride-along moments the camera isn’t tasked with doing anything remotely fancy in this production. That’s OK though, as the down-to-Earth style suits Elijah’s background with the very few moments of more expressive camerawork occurring in Paris. If you were to pick something out as really impressive, it would be Penny’s use of montage in the form of the introductions to Elijah’s hometown and later in Paris, jumping between location and figures in a way that brings to mind the work of Greg Whiteley. It’s a bit downbeat and gloomy in terms of colour palette, but for me that fit: the blues and greys suit Elijah’s mood, and the sense of trying to escape something.
Elijah travels to Paris as part of his course, and this change of scenery allows for some excellent visual story-telling. Uncorked is a well-directed production, and no better than when the director is drawing an eye to the juxtaposition between Elijah’s background in a somewhat run-down African-American community and similar areas in Paris that are populated primarily by people of African extraction. It’s like Penny wants to make the point that Elijah’s quest outside of the realms of his own background leads him to a situation where he realises his own world isn’t as small as it was initially presented to him. This is matched by the film’s soundtrack, a mixture of rap and hip-hop that transcends national borders: perhaps the most notably song on the soundtrack is “Grand Garcon” by Marty De Lutece, a French language track that welcomes Elijah to new, but still familiar, surrounds.
Moving towards a summation, I really enjoyed Uncorked. It’s a film that was clearly years in the making once you consider the completeness of it, the polish and the loving care that oozes out of every frame. That patient build-up shows in the finished product, with Uncorked exhibiting great performances from its main cast, an interesting narrative that will keep you engaged, an examination of some important issues that manages to be insightful without being heavy-handed, and just an entertaining story about a young man trying to make his dreams come true. Despite the doey-eyed ideas that the last part of the previous sentence might engender in you, Uncorked is also a film based very much in cold, hard reality, as its somewhat downbeat ending will attest, and this may be to the film’s long-term detriment in terms of audience satisfaction. But I, for one, thought it was great. Every time Netflix invests it something that it should be avoiding, you tend to find the other side of the coin shortly after. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).