Director: Prentice Penny
Screenwriter: Prentice Penny
Starring: Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash, Sasha Compère, Gil Ozeri, Matt McGorry, Meera Rohit Kumbhani
Uncorked opens with a witty montage juxtaposing wine making and barbecue meat preparation. Both are food and drink art forms, but one is considered a much higher art to the other. What happens when someone wants to transition between the two, their passion and drive alone having to overcome a lack of opportunity?
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) has a dream; to become a master sommelier, the highest distinction for an authority on wine to achieve. Elijah also has a problem; his dad (Courtney B. Vance) expects him to take over the family barbecue restaurant business when he retires instead. Things come to a head when, as part of his studies, Ejijah gets the chance to travel to Paris and leave his day job at the restaurant, perhaps for good.
You know straight away that Elijah lives and breathes wine, but also that he will not be a conventional sommelier when, while chatting up Tanya (Sasha Compère) he compares white wines to rappers (in case you were wondering, Jay-Z is a Chardonnay, Kanye is a Pinot).
We soon learn that Elijah has never been outside the USA. One of the many reasons he has a passion for wine is that it has the power to transport you to other places, when you know what to look for you can experience the sunny hills where the grapes were grown through the flavour, scent and body of the wine, without ever leaving home. That isn’t to say that Elijah wants to stay put – quite the opposite, in fact – but he respects the power of the humble grape to open up the world to everyone wherever they might be.
Elijah’s relationship with his parents is a close and loving one. His dad doesn’t want to destroy his dreams but doesn’t want his son to lose his grounding or look down on where he comes from. He’s a kid from Atlanta and comes from a long line of grafters who made sacrifices to keep food on the table. He’s also seen Elijah be passionate for things before that have not amounted to anything – at least by keeping him involved in the barbecue business he can offer his expert advice and support.
Elijah’s family mean well, but apart from his mother (Niecy Nash) who has her own health problems to focus on, they don’t really know how to show it, nor are they quite able to grasp what Elijah wants to do with his life. A recurring gag around the family dinner table has them mix up Elijah’s dream profession with other unrelated words (“A sommelier? Like a pirate?”).
When thinking of wine movies, most would think of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. While Uncorked is arguably more grounded and perhaps a little less pretentious than the Oscar winner, you could also say that they’re just very different takes on the same world. Sideways is an ambling road movie exploring depression via a wine tasting holiday. Uncorked shares more DNA with sports movies – Elijah has to train, refine his skills and go through many ups and downs to be the best, to pass his master sommelier exams.
Writer-director Prentice Penny clearly has a lot to say about the world and its social divides. You look around Elijah’s wine class and while it might not be all white, it is mostly white, upper-middle-class students with rich parents. So many people are not given the opportunity to follow their passions – privilege taints so many industries and makes it difficult to impossible for some to get started in a field that they love just because of where they come from. As of 2015, it was reported that over 40 years only 2 of the 230 master sommeliers worldwide were of African American descent. Elijah represents someone with a once in a generation shot, but the odds are stacked against him.
If there’s a point where Uncorked falls slightly short, it is with the supporting characters. Elijah’s parents are wonderfully played and a clear drive for the decisions (positive and negative) Elijah makes about his future, but the film seems to forget about his girlfriend Tanya and their relationship all too quickly, his friends back home and the students on his wine course also drawn a little too broadly.
Niggles aside, Uncorked gets so much right. A quiet game of dominoes late in the film becomes one of the most moving scenes of the year. The almost magical power of food and drink comes across on film, and the passion for the subject on show will leave those inclined with a powerful craving for wine and barbecued meat.