For Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), growing up meant learning the family trade, the in’s and out’s of Memphis barbeque. Be it collecting wood or stoking the fires early in the morning or late at night, his next move was planned out well in advance by his proud father Louis (Courtney B. Vance). Problem is, Elijah aspires to something vastly different, a life as a master Sommelier. Louis sees this as just another of Elijah’s bright ideas, a hobby that will fall by the wayside before too long. Thanks to keen direction and writing by debut filmmaker Prentice Penny, we know different.
This central conflict, one of expectations versus personal dreams, father vs son is a constantly shifting see-saw, one that pushes Louis and Elijah away from each other and towards. Their squabbles, while never trivial are the kind of family disagreements, the ones that always seem to start and end with humour but somewhere in the middle, the brutal honesty comes out. Be it Sylvia’s teasing or Louis’ condescension, Elijah’s choices might be the focal point of Penny’s film but thankfully they are the source of much of the comic moments, ones that spark out of the most unlikely conversations. Athie and Vance seem most at home riffing on a fictional past that seems second nature to them, a closeness that comes from a velvety smooth and mature script.
Uncorked is a film full of zeal, not just for Elijah’s dreams but also the fervour of those around him, from his father to his headstrong mother Sylvia (a terrific Niecy Nash). An opening title sequence all about dedication, the intricacies of making a single bottle of wine contrasted with the attention required to cook a single rack of ribs places you within a mindset of excellence above all else. It might well be a build yourself up by your bootstraps movie much like the many before it but its the lively feel of this fractious family and the devotion with which Penny displays both the intricacies of both the wine trade and that of southern BBQ that gives everything an aroma of authenticity, one that carries your attention through some visual slips.
This Memphis speaks to the unspoken issues of race that are ever present during Elijah’s attempts to dominate in a field largely comprised of white men, the location shooting builds a strong feel for the kind of society not only Elijah is used to but the one Louis grew up in. This unspoken knowledge oftentimes falls flat when Uncorked takes its tale indoors where the lack of budget means sets that look brand new, even if they shouldn’t. The family restaurant while embracing the history in Penny’s script never feels as convincing as the lumber yards, graffiti covered streets and egalitarian architecture of Elijah’s new school normal. The detail orientated wide shots that provide needed spices to Elijah’s world and life are replaced with close-ups designed to obfuscate the film’s visually lacking set design.
This is only compounded by an overreliance on montage, both to embolden dry sequences when Elijah is essentially just reading and learning but also to maintain pace in a film which lulls significantly when its action steps away from the community its story is intrinsically linked to. When Elijah takes the inevitable, painfully predictable trip to Paris that feels like a lifeless addendum to an already full essay, Penny’s film squanders its emotional weight for unneeded convention. The wine story without mentioning Paris, unheard of. That would have been truly groundbreaking though.
Uncorked, Prentice Penny’s feature debut is a complicated concoction of flavours all rolled into one. This is as much a story about passion as it is about fathers and sons and the generational biases that can split families apart. It does all this while painting a landscape of black America and the tenacity and fortitude it takes to make it in a world half expecting you to fail. It’s an expressive and robust film that is unfortunately let down too often by a budget that impacts the visual flair Penny is shooting for and an all too often conventional story.