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‘Uncorked’ a glass more than half full

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To many, the more granular aspects of wine might seem inaccessible. The finer details picked up by the oenophiles among us are largely lost on those on the outside looking in. And make no mistake, there are A LOT of finer details … and only the select few who fully grasp all of those details can achieve the title of master sommelier.

But what if your passion for wine isn’t enough? What if there are other forces at work, personal and professional responsibilities that are at odds with your singular goal?

That’s the conflict at the center of “Uncorked,” the new drama from Netflix. Written and directed by Prentice Penny, it’s the story of one young man whose love of wine inspires him to try and pursue an oenophile’s education, much to the chagrin of the father who wants him to take over the family business.

This sort of father/son conflict is pretty standard fare for family drama, but this film explores it without ever devolving into boilerplate. Sure, there’s a formula at work here, but thanks to some smart choices and a handful of really compelling performances, the movie never succumbs to cliché. Instead, we get a heartfelt and extremely watchable drama – one to which you’ll have no problem raising a glass.

Elijah (Mamadou Athie, “Underwater”) is a young man living in Memphis. For years, he has been working at his family’s BBQ joint. His mother Sylvia (Niecy Nash, TV’s “Claws”) has long been his champion as he has tried to figure out what he wants to do with his life, but his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance, “The Photograph”) has been trying to groom him to take over the family business.

But it seems as though Elijah may have found his true passion – and it isn’t smoked meat. He has been working at a wine store and learning more and more about the subtle intricacies of wine; his boss Raylan (Matthew Glave, “The Way Back”) thinks he might have a gift and is encouraging him to pursue it.

When Elijah decides to take the plunge and enroll in school to try and become a sommelier, it causes considerable friction at home. Sylvia is encouraging as always, but Louis resents the choice and makes no secret of his displeasure – a displeasure that only grows as both the cost and Elijah’s time away from work continue to rise. Elijah’s got the support of his new girlfriend Tanya (Sasha Compere, TV’s “The Dead Girls Detective Agency”), but that relationship presents a few issues of its own.

In the end, the choice is Elijah’s – a choice on which he wavers due to circumstances both out of his control and of his own making. He is pursuing his dream, but will the cost ultimately prove too great?

There’s nothing in “Uncorked” that you haven’t seen before – and that’s OK. The familiarity of the basic narrative should be viewed as a feature rather than a bug; there’s something comforting about watching these beats unfold, in recognizing the fundamental foundation of the story even as engaging and interesting details are built upon it. There’s emotional heft here, but also a good deal of humor; for the most part, the blend of the two is on the mark.

The central conflict is one of father and son, but there’s also an element of class that is brought into the proceedings, a sort of high culture versus low culture vibe that, while not thoroughly explored, definitely flavors the tale as it is being told. The struggle to balance making one’s own way with the expectations of kith and kin is a universal one; it’s rendered skillfully here.

(Note: As someone who rates himself as slightly above average on the wine-knowing scale, it was genuinely fascinating to get a glimpse of what the world of aspiring sommeliers looks like. While I’ll admit that I can’t speak for the veracity of all the details, I can say that they certainly felt genuine.)

Prentice Penny is making his feature debut here, though his work is likely familiar to anyone who has watched television in the last decade – he’s written for and/or produced shows like “Happy Endings,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Insecure.” There’s a lot of heart here for sure, though while the dramatic beats are certainly impactful, “Uncorked” is at its best when it finds the laughs – and there are some good ones, all of them organically baked in.

Athie does a fine job serving as the central figure, projecting a general discomfort in his own skin that works wonderfully in rendering this young man’s journey. A touch flat in spots, perhaps, but effective overall. And in truth, that flatness isn’t his fault; anyone was going to read a little flat playing against Vance and Nash, who are an absolute delight to watch. They are a pair of gifted performers, bringing a strong energy and incredible chemistry to their scenes; they are funny and poignant and generally excellent. The rest of the cast performs capably, though most of the standout moments belong to the leads.

“Uncorked” is a heartfelt film with notes of humor, a father/son blend with just a hint of class consciousness. There’s an earthy undertone to it all, though it may not have reached full maturity. It drinks cleanly and brightly, pairing well with either comedy or drama. A few minor imperfections, yes, but a bold statement from an up-and-coming vintner nevertheless.

All in all, I’d consider “Uncorked” to be a glass far more than half full.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 29 March 2020 13:15

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