Sam de Jong makes a disarming if soft-centered debut with this look at a 17-year-old growing up in an Amsterdam housing project.
An uneven but engaging new talent arrives on the scene with “Prince,” Sam de Jong’s brightly stylized writing-directing debut about a Moroccan-Dutch teenager trying to find his way in a world that doesn’t yet extend far beyond his Amsterdam housing project. Life is bleak but also sweet in this red-bricked enclave, where brash young men sling insults, exaggerate their sexual prowess, and are exposed early on to the ever-present temptations of crime and violence, but where the fundamental goodness of human nature prevails in the fairy-tale fashion suggested by the movie’s title. A slender, morally simplified fable that makes up for its tonal and narrative imprecisions with considerable visual energy, musical pizzazz, and a panoply of colorful characters, “Prince,” now in limited theatrical release Stateside, should do its part as a calling card for de Jong and his appealing cast.
A 28-year-old Dutch-born filmmaker with several shorts to his credit, de Jong serves up social realism with a deliberate but not-too-cloying layer of artifice, slowing down or speeding up the action as needed, and often positioning characters at the center of the frame in closeup. Early on, then, we get a good look at 17-year-old Ayoub (likable newcomer Ayoub Elasri), who spends most of his time hanging out with his friends, making mild mischief and fantasizing about Laura (Sigrid Ten Napel), a beautiful blonde teen who lives on the estate. But Laura is running around with Ronnie (Peter Douma), the leader of an older pack of layabouts who bully the teens mercilessly, reserving special scorn for Ayoub due to his minority status. Adding to the soapy romantic complications, Ayoub’s best bud happens to be Ronnie’s younger brother, Franky (Jorik Scholten), who turns out to have a serious crush on Ayoub’s half-sister, Demi (Olivia Lonsdale).
The messy but generally warm and supportive dynamics of Ayoub’s home life are among the film’s chief pleasures, from his relationship with his mother (a wonderful Elsie de Brauw), whom he tries to help find meet men online, to his understandable feelings of over-protectiveness toward Demi. Outside the apartment, Ayoub shows patience and generosity toward his homeless, drug-addicted father (Chaib Massaoudi), even though the man’s Moroccan heritage and wastrel ways are a regular source of shame. For all the characters’ tough talk and testosterone-fueled swagger, there’s a disarming sweetness, even softness, at the core of “Prince” that makes it a bit hard to swallow its third-act swerve into violence. It’s easy enough to believe that Ayoub might take drastic measures to fight back, get the girl and prove his worth, but he’s too good-hearted to fully earn the movie’s redemptive arc, especially given the brief 76-minute running time.
The only unrepentantly wicked character onscreen (and by far the least convincing) is Kalpa, a gun-waving, pig-slaughtering, purple-Lamborghini-driving local crook who serves as the story’s flashy Fagin figure; he’s played by Dutch rapper Freddy Tratlehner in a flashy, over-the-top turn. Where “Prince” is most persuasive, despite its uneven technique and wobbly execution, is in the way it captures a broken-down, socially marginalized environment and the defiant, aspirational ethos of those who dwell in it — a place where a pair of expensive Zanotti sneakers represent the ultimate status symbol, and where a scrawny, socially maladroit kid can get a shot at winning the princess’s heart if he does enough sit-ups. It may be a fantasy, slathered in eye-popping colors and spirit-boosting synth tracks (most of them courtesy of credited music supervisor Palmbomen, aka Kai Hugo), but de Jong’s heartfelt, emotionally generous approach nonetheless scratches the surface of something vivid and real.