Movie review: Uncorked

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Whether they are self-imposed or imposed from outside, the weight of expectations can weight heavily on someone’s life.

While the more militant among us might decry the pressure these expectations bring and simply urge those afflicted to push them off and carry on as if they were never there, the reality is that disentangling yourself from them is far easier said than done.

One person who knows the true import of this is Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), a young man in Memphis, Tennessee who has a passion for wine and has a nascent dream of becoming a sommelier, or specialist wine steward.

They are nascent because Elijah, who works part-time in a fine wines store with boss Raylan (Matthew Grave), is still coming to grips with what fulfilling this then far off dream could mean to his relationship with his family overall, and his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance), who expects his son to join the family’s growing barbeque restaurant business.

Elijah knows only to well how much this means to his father who watched his own dad struggle to keep the business afloat when adversity hit and who gave up his own hopes and dreams of becoming a teacher to keep the family in the ribs cooking business.

For Louis, the business is not simply a bricks-n-mortar livelihood, though it is of course very much that; it is also a calling, a deepseated need to honour the work of his father and ensure his efforts were not in vain.

A bright boy, Elijah understands this all too well, but instead of emboldening him, Louis’s expectations weigh heavily on his son who wants to do the right thing by his family but cannot draw his gaze away from what might be if he carefully pushed those heavyset expectations off his bowed shoulders.

(image courtesy Netflix)

Louis’s gently adamant belief that Elijah will join the business is countered and ameliorated by his devotedly sassy mum Sylvia (Niecy Nash in fine hilariously touching form) and by girlfriend Tanya (Sasha Compère) who both believe he can become the sommerlier of his dreams.

It’s not an easy road to take however as Elijah discovers when he enrols in sommelier school which sports an exacting and exhaustively detailed curriculum which demands nothing less than complete perfection.

In a vacuum, which let’s face it none of us ever exist in with real life always pushing in from the margins, Elijah could ace the requirements of sitting the frighteningly intense sommelier exam, possessed as he is of a fine pallette and an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, but time and again he finds himself pulled in directions over which he has little to no control (though he does over his responses which are not always ideal but then who of us can honestly claim any different?).

Quite apart from the relentless pressure of his dad’s expectations, and his own internalisation of those pressures, Elijah must grapple with a series of setbacks that muddy his path to fulfilling his dreams and call into question whether he can pursue them at all.

What makes Uncorked, written and directed by Prentice Penny, such a compelling piece of filmmaking is that it does take the obvious route to getting Elijah to the hoped-for finish line.

While the narrative pieces themselves are relatively well-worn tropes – the unyielding father, the hopeful for his own dream son, the supportive mother, the tug-of-war between what is and what could be – Penny assembles in such a fashion that Uncorked takes on a real emotional weight and complexity.

The chief driver of this narrative thrust is the relationship between father and son.

While they obviously love each other – that much is obvious when Elijah puts his sommelier dream in danger to help his dad out during a particularly tough time for the family and the business – and want the best for each other, this often takes a backseat to the always looming expectation that the business will become Elijah’s one day. (Interestingly there is no suggestion of Elijah’s sister taking things over, with much laughingly made of her inability to cook anything well; quite why that might preclude from running the business is never made clear.)

(image courtesy Netflix)

As the straight path to fulfilling his dreams because ever more tortuously twisted and almost impossible to navigate, Elijah and his father continually butt heads unable to find any kind of workable way to meet in the middle.

That is until a series of fairly traumatic events mean that Elijah has to make some really tough decisions about what is and isn’t viable in his life and Louis has to decide whether keeping the business in family hands is worth driving away his son.

Their path to some kind of resolution is neither easy nor contrived, lending Uncorked, which does have some narratively fantastical elements to it, an air of the authentic, a sense that here are a real father and son, who love each other but who can’t quite find a way to bridge the gulf between them.

As a result, the film is far more emotionally resonant than the trailer might suggest as it takes a hard look at that unenviable place where dreams and expectations meet and how hard it is to exist there and move beyond it.

Held aloft by some finely nuanced performances by Vance, Nash and Athie, Uncorked is an affecting joy that takes us into deep into family, hopes and expectations and asks us to journey with some very real and flawed people as they try to fashion a workable, pleasing future from a mishmash of competing expectations.

The film does an exemplary job of showing why something so simple in one sense – just set and fulfill your dreams and deal with any consequences of going down that road – is never quite that easy since unless you’re a narcissistic monster, untangling what you want from what the people you know and love need, is never an easy undertaking.

It’s tough and Uncorked doesn’t shy from this, and life’s many messy complications for one second, offering up a highly-rewarding film that is a wish fulfillment fantasy grounded in some very grounded, real concerns that can’t be wished away and which must be dealt with if precious imagined futures are ever to be realised in the flesh.

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