Cast: Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash, Matt McGorry, Sasha Compere, Gil Ozeri
Director: Prentice Penny
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Understated elegance imbues Uncorked, a marvellous little gem streaming on Netflix since last Friday. The finely-tuned, slice of life father-son relationship drama from writer-director Prentice Penny springs two significant surprises. One, it dwells upon the often daunting and always swish minutiae of wine tasting but never ceases to be a captivating film, which is as much of a marvel as all the engaging and entertaining movies about math wizardry that we have seen over the years.
And two, Uncorked firmly slams the lid on the Hollywood proclivity to project black men, patriarchs and youngsters alike, in a light that denies them the right to be seen as real people looking for a chance to get ahead in life. It breaks the stereotypes of socially maladjusted, emotionally scalded African Americans in no uncertain terms and offers a nuanced portrayal of a family dealing with the inevitably tricky transition from one generation to another.
The Memphis-set film straddles two disparate worlds that have the potential to complement each other when pull comes to shove, as it indeed does here: one of spare ribs, brisket and pulled pork, the other of the flavours and aromas of fine wine. We do see, or hear of, meat suppliers and firewood sellers, but inner-city tumult is not what Uncorked is interested in.
Penny, the showrunner of the HBO comedy drama series Insecure, crafts a subtle, perceptive tale that invests far more in the process of a young man in pursuit of an unconventional goal in the face of pressures from his family than in any grand narrative arc solely reliant on the face-off between a barbecue restaurant owner and his son who has little interest in following in his father's footsteps.
The first time that Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), the protagonist of Uncorked, announces to his family that he aspires to be a "sommelier" the calling rings no bell at all. They believe the term has something to do with Somalia. That is how far removed his parents, Louis (Courtney B. Vance) and mother Sylvia (Niecy Nash), are from Elijah's love of wine.
Louis runs a popular BBQ place. He takes it for granted that his son will inherit the family business, exactly the way he had from his father, and keep it running. But Elijah has other ideas. He knows how tough it is to break into the rarefied universe of master sommeliers. There are less than 250 of them in the whole wide world and passing the test is no cakewalk. But he is sure the gamble is worth it.
The young man's mother is fully supportive. She believes Elijah should be allowed to follow his dream no matter how impossible it might seem. His dad, however, finds it difficult to wrap his head around Elijah's obsession with "that African thing". To entice him, the old man shows Elijah the space for a bar in a property that he acquires for a second restaurant.
The old man mocks Elijah for not being focused enough. He once wanted to be a DJ and then a teacher of English in Japan, Louis complains to Sylvia as she tries gamely to mediate between father and son. "We both know how this wine thing is going to end up," Louis says with a sense of resignation.
Elijah works in a wine store. He sweeps one his customers, Tanya (Sasha Compere), off her feet with his knowledge of Chardonnay, Pino Grigio and Rieslings. The two strike up a romantic relationship. The girl eggs him on and Elijah enrols in the master sommelier test that few manage to pass on the first attempt.
The move takes Elijah to Paris along with three other students, none of them black, but not before he has to struggle for funds. He sells his car, and the family chips in with the rest. He still has to split the local expenses with fellow traveller Harvard (Matt McGorry). Elijah is a determined man, but Uncorked isn't a simple story of a triumph against all odds. It stands apart from other generation gap stories in this respect.
Uncorked is not so much about Elijah realising his ambition as about the steady evolution of his relationship with his father, especially following a personal tragedy that forces him to return to the family fold from the exchange programme in Paris.
The film not only journeys into the mind of a black man determined to make his mark in a white-dominated domain but also provides glimpses of the struggle that Louis had to endure to grow the business and keep it going. In one crucial scene, as Louis asks Elijah to don his grandfather's lucky suit for a make-or-break blind tasting test, he also reminds the boy how tough it was back in the 1960s for a black man to secure a business loan. Louis's father had to start off with money won in a dice game.
The Uncorked soundscape is studded with a rich array of hip-hop, R&B and soul numbers, with Memphis rappers and crooners (Kay Glock, Sleepy Knockz, Marco Pave) featuring prominently alongside the likes of Ronnie Walker and Benny Latimore.
Mamoudou Athie (last seen in Brie Larson's Unicorn Store and Jason Reitman's The Front Runner) lends Elijah a natural, easy-flowing genteel quality. Courtney B. Vance sinks his teeth into the role of the father with conviction and Niecy Nash etches out a loveable portrait of a matriarch.
Uncorked steers clear of the intensely dramatic but sharply underscores the subliminal tensions brewing between two strong-willed men who wish each other well and yet hope that the other will eventually relent. Both have to man up and face the future: the quiet duel between the pair is nothing if not fascinating in its universality.
Uncorked is modest in its ambition but the smoothness it achieves is of the highest order.