Movie Review: Uptown (2008)

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It's been said that you reveal more about your true self in the jokes you tell and the questions you ask of others than you do in normal conversation.

And Isabel (Meissa Hampton) proves this theory within minutes of Brian Ackley's emotionally moving indie Uptown-- after what Uma Thurman's character referred to in Pulp Fiction as the awkward "getting-to-know-you chit-chat" has been pushed aside.

She does this deftly-- aided by the distraction of pasta when the pauses have been replaced with slightly more free-flowing conversation-- which is helped considerably by a woman's most surefire way to take the focus off of her and turn the tables on her dinner companion wherein Isabel asks Ben (Chris Rinquinha) about his work.

For, covertly and oh, so subtly between forkfuls of noodles, she casually inquires, "are you married?"

Self-conscious, nervous, and eager to prove he's not a cliched creep who's hiding his ring in the creases of the wallet in his back pocket, Ben quickly says "no" before continuing on with the conversation. Launching back into his mission to impress her, he therefore fails to catch Isabel's obvious cue for him to ask the same of her.

And now feeling even more anxious, he adorably segues back to his "pitch" which he explains was his real impetus for inviting her to dinner in the hopes of persuading her to star in his film--again equally revealing his true nature by sublimating it into art since the project centers on a "guy who always has failed relationships."

Still, by this point something has clicked between the two of them-- despite a few painfully awkward moments early on in the meal where he tells her the creepy plot of a movie he'd just starred in (which as a former film school graduate would've raised a few red flags for me) and Isabel's reluctance to share the most basic information about herself as a human being (which similarly should've raised some red flags for Ben).

So--after listening to Ben for a good long awhile-- the carefree dog walker (who only admits to liking good music) agrees to his proposal to be in the movie with a breezy, "OK, if you say so," before dropping an emotional landmine on the young man as they take to the New York City evening air.

Having just finished up what to everyone else what be considered a date that's disguised as a business meeting and as such realizing that-- again like most young filmmakers I met in school-- Ben's interest in her for his work may have perhaps had more to do with an attraction than strictly with art in mind (or he would've suggested a morning coffee instead of dinner at a restaurant of her choosing), Isabel decides to come clean.

To this end, she shares that although his MySpace page lists his status as married--most likely for protection or safety from would be weirdos--her admission on the social networking platform which states that she is in fact married is actually true.

Soldiering on, she dismisses this fact as beside the point, describing the situation as "well, there was a wedding and a dress but now we're like brother/sister" and "don't see each other much."

And it was at this point that I realized I was completely taken in by Uptown as the actors play this scene beautifully as neither one wants to acknowledge they have a possible connection or likewise get off on the wrong foot in a way to which we can all relate.

While Hampton has fully immersed herself in her character, this scene also marks the breakthrough moment for Riquinha in particular as he manages to do that rare thing as an actor in ensuring our complete belief that we're actually watching Ben and not Riquinha think-- as he quickly attempts to process the information.

Trying to coolly adjust to the admission-- while at the same time hide the fact he may have wanted to work with her simply based on a crush-- he repeats aloud, "Well, Isabel's married, Isabel's married," in a stunningly real moment of true heartbreak. However, in an attempt to mask his disappointment, they continue to meander towards Central Park.

Understandably far more at ease now that she's stopped bluffing and shown her cards, Hampton's Isabel loosens up as the two embark on one of those precarious friendships we all try to fool ourselves into believing we can handle when one or both parties are committed elsewhere despite the fact that there's an unspoken chemistry at play.

Revealing her refreshingly guileless and free-spirited nature by serving up her dream list of things she wants to do-- which consists of taking pleasure in the little things like hoping to see a concert in the park, brave the Coney Island roller coaster, take a carriage ride, and continue taking photos of strange places-- Isabel is the opposite of an agenda-driven contemporary twenty-first century multi-tasker. And furthermore as the hours go by, you understand that she's exactly the type of individual Ben has always wanted to meet.

This is especially apparent when-- even from the earliest moments-- there seems to be a painful melancholy he's tried to push just below the surface by taking on the guise of a confident, driven filmmaker which Ben later confesses to when she inquires why he hasn't been in a serious relationship for years.

Noting that he's fairly picky and not the Brooklyn player for whom she's jokingly had him pegged-- he tells her in equally straightforward fashion that not only is he a loner but moreover he says the one thing most of us think and do not say which is, "I value my time" (in lieu of spending it with someone for whom we have lukewarm feelings).

Yet over one of those extended walk-and-talk evenings that emphasizes the already romantic familiarity of the two as they sneak sideways glances at one another amidst some breathtaking scenery and bring Isabel's dog along (a la Manhattan), we realize that-- no matter how much they kid themselves in both the definition of their relationship and their attempt to defy the odds-- they'll never truly be able to be just friends.

Spending increasing amounts of time together on the phone, online, and off in escalating flirtatious (offscreen) e-mails-- even after Isabel's husband (again offscreen) learns of their relationship and shares his outrage-- their attempts at pure friendship are continually thwarted.

Simply put, they gravitate towards one another until it leads up to a moment where one must confess just what exactly is going on and take their dynamic out of vague parenthesis and actually type it out in an honest text message that serves as the turning point in this brisk, succinct but completely effective seventy-five minute film.

Easily relatable and filmed with a reverence for naturalism, Uptown is heightened by the fact that it comes from a true story and is also co-written by first time filmmaker Ackley along with his lead actors Hampton and Riquinha. Likewise, making the most of the picturesque beauty of autumn in New York-- Uptown is a gorgeous work that seems like it relishes in shooting during magic hour for the most exquisite effect.

And while on the surface it's easy to classify the film as being in the same realm as similarly themed or structured works including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Once, and Quiet City with a few nods to Woody Allen's Manhattan and Annie Hall as well as some of the inspirations for those movies like Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre and Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's-- overall, Ackley's film is especially unique as the events unfold in a realistic, logical, and emotionally heartbreaking (yet still satisfying) way.

Highly recommended, Uptown boasts exceptional turns by its actors, shows remarkable promise from Ackley in a work that was my favorite film screened over a weekend that consisted largely of big-budget, A-list star filled, studio-backed franchise pictures.

Moreover, it's well worth tracking down for purchase on the film's website or via that of its independent production company One Way or Another which was founded by filmmaker and Uptown producer Princeton Holt.