Eerily similar in premise to fellow Sundance title “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” but very different tonally and otherwise, the Israeli drama “Princess” plays out an unsettling scenario of underage sexuality in enigmatic, almost dreamlike terms. Tali Shalom Ezer’s fascinating debut feature, which won a slew of prizes at its Jerusalem Film Festival bow last spring, is an iffy commercial prospect that could nonetheless pick up further steam along the fest route toward niche export sales.
Twelve-year-old Adar (Shira Haas) is just entering puberty — she has her first period during the story’s progress — as a perpetually truant student at a school for the gifted that she’s at risk of being expelled from. Mostly, however, she just stays at home, where she can hardly help but notice the very amorous dynamic between her mother, Alma (Keren Mor), and her boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), which excites her curiosity. There’s also a sexual tinge to the horseplay she enjoys with the handsome, affable Michael, who also frequently just hangs out at home — he’s lost his teaching job, a fact that seems to bother him much less than it does hospital employee Alma. Even Mom, however, succumbs to the pervasive air of drowsy, eroticized indolence during her non-working hours.
Playing hooky as usual one day, tomboyish Adar chances upon the vaguely androgynous Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), a street boy who’s her slightly older, taller male doppelganger. They immediately click, as if they were psychic as well as near-physical twins. As he’s apparently homeless, Adar invites him home — and he immediately slips right into the seductively easygoing household rhythms.
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But his presence also rachets up the sexual tensions. Michael, who already has a curious tendency to address Adar by the male pronoun (and as “Prince”), seems downright infatuated with her boy double. His playfulness, which seems at first like a laudably relaxed and affectionate form of parenting, takes on a more ominous, aggressive character until it crosses the line into assault.
The film’s genuine erotic atmosphere makes this late development all the more disturbing. We’re made to feel implicit when Michael is revealed as a sort of omnisexual monster — something that would have raised alarms all along had not the viewer been lulled into a sort of pleasurably tactile, hot-weather stupor. These characters live in a bubble of desires both acted on and just formative, the exterior world barely denting their insular perspective. Subsidiary figures are seldom glimpsed; it’s jarring when Adar pays a visit to her biological father, a schlubby average Joe who clearly wouldn’t have fit into her mother’s current hedonistic lifestyle. While he’s not treated as a phantom, the pic teases the interpretive possibility that perhaps Alan is really just a manifestation of Adar’s budding sexuality — a more daring, dangerous alter ego who can act out her fantasies for (and with) her.
There’s a spontaneous feel to all the extremely well-judged performances. Design and tech aspects are modest but very astutely focused, with d.p. Radek Ladczuk’s casual yet intensely intimate compositions and Ishai Adar’s spectral score making standout contributions.