Starring Courtney B. Vance, Mamoudou Athie, Niecy Nash, Sasha Compere
What a delightful surprise to see a winner from a relatively new filmmaker, Prentice Penny, writer and director. We don’t usually think of a black middle-class young man with a future in his father’s business wanting to become a sommelier (not a Somalian, as envisioned by some in his circle). But Elijah (Athie) is a dreamer, and something caught his fancy when he first heard of experts in wine tasting.
All will not be well on the home front. Blessed with an empathetic, insightful mother, Elijah was encouraged to pursue his calling, which turns out to be a bitter disappointment to a father (Vance) who had sacrificed his own dreams in order to please his father and keep up the family’s BBQ business. As so often happens, father Louis has so repressed his own wishes, he does not recognize putting his son in the same bind he encountered as a young man. I admired the mother’s ability to still the turbulent waters of the two men’s relationship, and maneuver through treacherous waters—superbly acted by Niecy Nash.
But there is much more going on in this story; the main thrust is Elijah’s enrolling in school and trying to master a course that few manage to pass, to become a Master Sommelier. It would have been rewarding to learn more about his three other fellow students, who similarly had stories to tell, but we have to be content to get only glimpses into their personalities and background.
This is primarily a family drama that entertains as much in that as getting insights into the wine business, which will be intriguing to wine lovers unacquainted with the profession. As in quality filming, it has additional themes of overcoming tremendous odds to achieve a dream and father-son conflicts that appear to be unresolvable.
Writer-director Penny should be congratulated on his ability to give us a picture that is skillful in intertwining family dynamics and a profession that is potentially interesting to most people. Speaking of which, the movie is likely to attract wine lovers, but may not speak to those who have other favorite drinks. When the students are required to describe wines and their essences and come up with grapes and region of origin (from Europe to the Americas to the world over), as well as the date, we realize what an art and a science it is.
Along with the script and direction, the cast is extraordinarily good. Vance is well known for his proficiency in television’s “American Crime Story”, and that is clearly apparent here, but the other actors are less well known. As the lead, Mamoudou Athie comes through with a fine performance of a young man torn between loyalty to his family—especially his father—and pursuing an exciting opportunity. But as noted, Niecy Nash as his mother, Sasha Compere as his steadfast girlfriend, and the actors playing his classmates are superb.
Lots of heart and soul in this story about a young man with a dream against all odds.