Film Review: Prince

Whimsical and mildly admirable coming-of-age film follows a Dutch-Moroccan boy in Amsterdam as he falls in with the wrong sorts to impress the girl he likes.
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On paper, the promising writer-director Sam de Jong’s feature film debut Prince signals the kind of social realism of a would-be Ken Loach film: Young boy from a broken home falls with the wrong crowd that leads him to an eventual catastrophe. Yet onscreen, de Jong’s film neither thoroughly explores the social conflicts its protagonist is facing, nor does it embrace the overall grimness its subject suggests. And this is only partly good news. Prince is light to the touch—with dark inclinations leavened with occasional humor—and surprisingly pleasant to look at, thanks to its stylish, whimsical aura. Yet its reluctance to go all out with its material prevents the film from bringing the goods home from a dramatic or emotional perspective.

The story follows young Ayoub (played by Ayoub Elasri), a Dutch-Moroccan boy living in an ordinary neighborhood in Amsterdam. His divorced parents and his sister (played by Olivia Lonsdale), blossoming and involved with a boy he doesn’t approve of, aren’t exactly making life easy for him. Ayoub’s Dutch mother (Elsie de Brauw) is lonely and unhappy, and his Moroccan father (Chaib Massaoudi) is a known junkie putting Ayoub through hell. Despite all life has thrown at him, Ayoub spends his days hanging out with his friends and platonically wooing the prettiest girl in his neighborhood: the crop-top-wearing, infinitely smiley blonde Laura (Sigrid ten Napel). Desperately trying to win her, he decides he needs to go the badass route and thus gets in the circle of Kalpa (played by the rapper Freddy Tratlehner), a violent local gangster with full pockets and a purple Lamborghini. And for anyone doubting Kalpa’s madness, the film gives us a glimpse of his giant freezer where we witness a rather unpleasant episode with a pig.

If high-school flicks or gangster stories have taught us anything at all, we know hanging out with the right or wrong sorts can make or break an individual. And in the case of Ayoub, it ends up being a little bit of both. Thus, to no one’s surprise, Ayoub’s meeting with Kalpa is where he “mans up” (e.g., acts macho), but also where his real problems begin.

Conceptually, the look and feel of Prince is stuck somewhere between quirky American teen fare like Ghost World and the vividly colorful Almodóvar films (pick one, any one). On one hand, it is refreshingly distinct in its handling of “teen in a tough neighborhood” material. The set design is immaculately inventive and the costumes jarringly bizarre and fun to a delightful effect. Paul Özgür’s fanciful camera is a tad on the distracting side (the same can be said about the electronic musical tracks); in the early moments especially, his staccato shots and unusual angles seem to favor style over substance. Yet, his lens matures along with the character, while somehow keeping his curious photographic idea consistent.

This doesn’t help with the film’s larger issues, however. With pieces of its plot not deepened or stretched out far enough (perhaps 78 minutes is just too lean a running time), and tidily assuming their predictable spots in the finale, Prince oftentimes proceeds like a parade of tropes (e.g., what do we really know about Laura other than the fact that she’ll end up being Ayoub’s prize for coming of age and doing good?) You want this film to be so much more, but the eventual feeling the mildly admirable Prince evokes hinges on indifference.

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