“Uncorked” pours an old, old wine into an unexpected new bottle, and while the results are hardly vintage, it still goes down better than two-buck chuck. The film debuted on Netflix last week and pairs nicely with a good merlot.
Here’s the plot: A young man has a passion but also has a father who expects him to take over the family business. The young man is ardent, the father adamant. There’s a mother who’s understanding and a girlfriend offering support from the sidelines. How many times have you seen this movie?
Plenty, but probably not where the father runs a barbecue joint and the son wants to be a sommelier. “Uncorked” stars Mamoudou Athie as Elijah, a young man bitten by the wine bug, and Courtney B. Vance as his father, Louis, who runs the best BBQ joint in Memphis. Louis and his wife, Sylvia (Niecy Nash), are proudly nestled in the city’s Black community, while Elijah and his peers are part of a younger cohort moving through a wider world. When the son starts taking classes in preparation for the Master Sommelier exam, it’s unremarked that he’s one of the few Black faces in the room.
Instead, the conflict in ”Uncorked” is generational, with Louis digging in his heels and refusing to respect his son’s calling, while Elijah remains torn between being developing a good nose and being a good son. Both leads are excellent; you expect as much from Vance but the surprise is the quietly charismatic Athie, who gives his role shades of geniality, ambition, frustration, and pig-headedness. The early scenes in which Elijah meets and woos girlfriend Tanya (Sasha Compère) are charming, but as their relationship progresses, we see his stubbornness and insecurity as well. It’s not just wine he’s being tested for.
“Uncorked” is the feature debut of writer-director Prentice Penny, whose background is in TV (he executive-produced HBO’s “Insecure”). He knows he’s telling an old story here and he doesn’t tinker with the factory parts: a class-clown best friend (Bernard David Jones) for the hero, a health scare to tighten the screws in the third act. What feels newly observed is the wine talk and the look into a subculture with demands that are, frankly, insane. To pass the Master Sommelier test, Elijah will have to sip from six glasses of wine and correctly name the grape, the region, the vineyard, and the year. If you know your vintages (or have read the delightful 2017 book “Cork Dork,” which I recommend), you’ll understand that the task makes studying organic chemistry look like a cakewalk in comparison.
Some of Elijah’s fellow students come from privileged backgrounds — the film puts him in a study group with a friendly preppie rival (Matt McGorry from “Orange Is the New Black”), an irritating nerd (Gil Ozeri), and a woman (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) — but otherwise stresses the camaraderie of the community of wine and the way it can open up one’s psychological taste buds to new sensations and experiences. At one point, Elijah travels to Paris and, to his shock, finds himself at home there. But “Uncorked” is also about the hero recognizing his roots in the terroir of Memphis and appreciating the aromatic nuances of ribs slow-cooking over hickory. It’ll age well.
Written and directed by Prentice Penny. Starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash. Streaming on Netflix. 104 minutes. TV-MA.