‘Uncorked’ Brims With Personal Trials of Striving to Do What You Love
Elijah has a vocation which he seeks to follow, but others think they know what’s best for him. Such is the hard road of many out there who wish to do what they love as opposed to the roles they are already expected to fill. This character is the best element of the new Netflix movie “Uncorked,” where wanting to be a sommelier could substitute for wanting to be a musician, writer or anything else considered out of the box in a practical world.
The movie is set in Memphis, where Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) works at the BBQ joint owned by his parents, Louis (Courtney B. Vance) and Sylvia (Niecy Nash). Although he is fully expected to inherit the business, Elijah’s real passion is in wine. Venturing out into the local wine scene, he is soon inspired to go to school to train as a sommelier. For Louis this news comes as an annoying surprise. As far as he’s concerned Elijah should be practical, settle down and get ready to take over the family restaurant. Elijah gets a little more support from Sylvia and his girlfriend Tanya (Sasha Compère). He empties out his savings and decides to go to class, discovering the fine art of being a sommelier while proving to everyone else what having a vocation means.
“Uncorked” is enjoyable because of its relatable simplicity. Director Prentice Penny writes a screenplay undoubtedly taken from his and countless others’ experiences in honing a craft while convincing others of your vision. Penny has been a writer on major shows like HBO’s “Insecure” with Issa Rae and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” while basking in demonstrating how to live lushly in the reality show “Upscale with Prentice Penny.” In a sense he has defied the stereotype of what an African American show or character should be and continues that trend with “Uncorked.” Elijah is a middle class black man aspiring to train in a world stereotyped as being accessible mostly to the very (white) elite. Yet it’s not a film about an outsider learning about some previously unknown culture or skill. Elijah naturally fits into the sommelier world because he loves it. The challenge is universal in that he has to study, prove he can make this into a lifestyle. The family angle avoids expected melodrama. Louis isn’t a tyrant. He just hasn’t seen Elijah do anything to really prove he can chase these esoteric dreams of his. What he offers Elijah isn’t necessarily impractical, it’s a firm business. The great theme of this small film is being independent enough to fulfill a passion that goes beyond mere hobby. Even Elijah’s relationship with Tanya is quite stable and supportive, the real tension comes later when he starts school.
The heart of “Uncorked” is the details of what it then takes to become a sommelier. Elijah attends class, makes friends and is suddenly in an environment where a refined palate becomes essential. Penny films the world of the sommelier as equivalent to learning a fine art, which it is. There are some fun moments where Elijah duels with classmates in tasting contests, naming off vintage, country of origin and ingredients. Good films have a way of taking us into other places and corners of the world. “Uncorked” could have been just another flashy restaurant movie, instead it’s about long nights of studying and bonding with classmates attempting to pursue the same career. Some of the issues Elijah faces are so true to life we rarely see them in movies, like splitting the cost of traveling to do an exchange program in Paris then discovering the other party bails out because they got a better job offer. Mamoudou Athie, who has mostly done strong supporting roles in films like “The Front Runner,” plays Elijah with a natural sophistication. His love for wines and sommelier culture is authentic and not posturing. He doesn’t want it because it looks refined and stylish, but because for him it’s a talent as natural as being gifted with a musical ear.
Penny does throw in a few moments to add more traditional dramatic tension. There’s sudden illness and dinner table confrontations that also brim with authenticity. The final moments also have a welcome, sober tone. Penny doesn’t make it easy or overly romantic for Elijah, because like any craft it’s a long climb with much hard work. “Uncorked” is a vintage well prepared about how being yourself also means pursuing a job no one has to force you to do.
“Uncorked” begins streaming March 27 on Netflix.