Every week, all kinds of new content lands on Netflix without much fanfare. Like a tree falling in the woods, if there isn’t a pandemic to keep us all home, does anyone notice? Now that we are home, the streaming service is serving up plenty worth checking out, from a trippy limited series about big cats and the people who raise them to a galvanizing, timely documentary about the power of a collective movement. Landing somewhere between these two riveting offerings and the studio’s forgettable holiday fare is Uncorked, a perfectly charming, fairly predictable story of an aspiring sommelier from Memphis whose family would rather he take over their BBQ joint.
Written and directed by Prentice Penny, a producer making his feature film directing debut, Mamoudou Athie (The Circle, “The Get Down”) stars as Elijah, who grew up working in his dad’s restaurant but now has a part time job at a wine shop where he gets to indulge his true passion, one that goes far beyond the ribs and cornbread he learned to make as a kid. Louis (Courtney B. Vance) has a hard time understanding why anyone would want something more than what the family business can offer, but Elijah’s mom Sylvia (Niecy Nash) at least understands that he deserves a chance to chase his dreams. Juggling his responsibilities at the restaurant and a promising new relationship with Tanya (Sasha Compère), Elijah enrolls in the rigorous program to become a master sommelier and pursue a career that’s a far cry from anything his family would expect of him.
Soon, he’s surrounded by classmates every bit as ambitious as he is, and many with a leg up on him, coming from backgrounds of travel and studies and experience Elijah’s never been exposed to. When the class gets a chance to study in Paris for a few weeks, none of his classmates even blanches at the extra expenses or the time away. But it’s a different thing entirely for Elijah, and far from a given that he can participate at all. Not only does he have to find a way to pay for it, but he’s got to finally come clean to his dad that the BBQ joint isn’t the future he has in mind for himself.
From a distance, Uncorked adheres to a familiar formula: a protagonist full of potential who has to overcome increasingly difficult hurdles to achieve his goals. It’s a structure that works well for Elijah’s story, making him a likable hero we’re happy to root for in every aspect, from his pursuits in the wine industry to his relationship with his parents. Penny infuses the film with personality throughout, genuinely funny moments that build rapport and goodwill with and between the characters. Vance and Nash, both entirely capable of carrying a film on their own, play Elijah’s meddling, well-meaning parents delightfully, and when one of the film’s many subplots features a more serious turn for Sylvia, even the addition of this more somber narrative brings with it endearing insights into the family dynamic. While there may not be much in Uncorked that surprises, charming performances and a genuine sense of tenderness throughout create a film that’s certainly enjoyable enough for a family movie night in.