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It’s one of the biggest decisions a person has to face in their lifetime: the choice to either follow in the footsteps of their family or to blaze a trail in the name of their own dreams. There have been plenty of stories covering this beat in the land of fiction, which only leaves fewer “new” pathways to be taken anytime someone tries to tell that very tale.
A movie like Netflix’s Uncorked needs new blood to be successful, and writer/director Prentice Penny delivers a story that acts as a beautiful and welcome change of pace within that concept. What’s even better is with the assistance of a perfectly chosen cast, the events shown on screen are brought together with the warmth and heart that nail down the overall feel of the movie.
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) has a passion and a path that he must choose between. His passion is to become a master sommelier, following his interest in the intricacies of wine; but the path already laid before him is to follow in the footsteps of his father, Louis (Courtney B. Vance), who wants him to take over the barbeque restaurant that’s been in their family for generations.
Struggling to find a balance between pursuing his dreams and helping his family when able, the pressures of life have Elijah questioning whether he can succeed in either capacity. As life throws its own unique curveballs his way, with the stakes raising gradually, that decision only becomes harder to make.
Uncorked’s story is a very familiar tale, told with added nuance and dimension.
If Uncorked were merely a “family business” story, it would have still been an interesting film to enjoy. That wouldn’t have been enough for Prentice Penny though, as his experience producing and shepherding atypical narratives found on shows like Happy Endings and Insecure has honed his singular voice in what would normally be very formulaic waters.
The conflict between Elijah and Louis certainly wraps itself around the old saw of keeping the family brand alive, and Uncorked doesn’t forget that it’s the main point of the narrative. However, there’s a layer of local flavor and African American culture that enriches this story, keeping the viewer ever present in the location these characters live in, and the struggles they’ve endured in their family line.
The family drama at the heart of Uncorked is subtle, but most effective.
The family drama in particular is a fantastic thread that Uncorked uses to its most effective extent. With each family dinner and every new wrinkle in the fabric of Elijah’s struggle to do his own thing, Penny’s dialogue doesn’t veer towards more melodramatic territory.
Instead, he chooses to ground aspects such as a plotline involving Elijah’s mother (Niecy Nash) and her battle with cancer in an organic fashion that moves the plot along with ease. Subtle reactions and very human moments of humor help sell just how important developments throughout the film truly are, never resorting to heavy-handed musical stings or overblown staging.
It’s the performances that are king in Uncorked, as the reactions and decisions made by the film’s various characters let the audience react and adapt in the same way an actual person would. As such, the plot never feels telegraphed, taking some avenues that one wouldn’t expect from this sort of movie, which only enhances the strong core of talent and storytelling at work.
Uncorked serves as both a commanding performance by Mamoudou Athie, and an excellent feature film debut by Prentice Penny.
Uncorked most definitely should be Mamoudou Athie’s calling card as an actor from this point forward. With tremendous performances in ensembles for films like Patti Cake$ and The Front Runner, Athie has been making a name as a notable young actor in supporting casts of heavy hitters. But his work in this particular project is absolutely stunning, as he navigates Elijah’s journey in perfect balance with his elements.
This especially shows when Mamoudou Athie is paired on screen with Courtney B. Vance, as the on-screen father and son feed off each other’s performances so beautifully that it hits harder than a typical father-son drama. The finished product is an unfiltered joy to behold, with a cast and script that allows all involved to shine as well as he does.
Which only leads to the overall point that in his feature film writing/directing debut, Prentice Penny has distinguished himself as a talent that should also be watched carefully from this moment forward. Uncorked takes what could have been another simple family drama about following your dreams and turns it into a gorgeously complicated matter.
The stakes are still high, but the story is grounded and challenging enough that it doesn’t treat the endgame as a given. In a time when everyone is turning to streaming providers for more entertainment than ever, Uncorked is living proof that the risks companies like Netfilx are taking with content are paying off.
Whether it’s because of its diverse approach to a traditional story, or the fact that it’s been given the chance to help disrupt the standard entertainment distribution model, Uncorked couldn’t have come at a better time. It is a film that deserves to find success in these troubling times, as it deals with its own troubles through open dialogue and humility rather than overblown dramatics.