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Wes Anderson-esque 'Prince' Marks The Debut Of A New Director Worth Watching

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 14, 2015 6:15PM

Ayoub Elasri in "Prince." (Photo courtesy of FilmBuff.)

Overflowing with style, Sam de Jong's first feature film Prince certainly shows his music video background, but the Dutch director also seems to draw on Wes Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) in a movie that at times is as tonally uneven as that pairing of influences would suggest. Visual exuberance wins out over any missteps, however, in this vibrant coming-of-age saga.

Clocking in at 78 minutes and not missing a narrative beat in that brevity (a model a lot of filmmakers would do well to follow), Prince follows Ayoub, a Dutch-Moroccan teenager hanging out with his pals, talking nonsense about girls and committing minor acts of juvenile delinquency, such as blowing up trash cans with fireworks. Ayoub is a decent, sensitive kid who worries about his lonely mom, his sexually-burgeoning sister and—most of all—his lost-cause junkie father.

Even in his economically downtrodden neighborhood, things seem relatively good for Ayoub, except for the bullying tactics of a band of small-time thugs that includes the brother of one of Ayoub' mates. The teen's crush on a blonde beauty dating one of the thugs brings more woe upon him. Things take a turn for the truly wild when the more hardened—and crazily drug-fueled—criminal Kalpa takes on Ayoub as a protégé.

In the early scenes, de Jong does seem to channel Wes Anderson. His film doesn't boast the intricate production design of Anderson's work, but the quick-cut introductions of characters directly facing the camera, eye-catching color schemes and playful narrative touches all have echoes of his whimsical approach.

But as the movie opens with a synth-laden dance pop tune and neon-purple credits, Refn's effective violent glamor show Drive does come to mind. And as the story turns darker, it's hard not to see the filmmaker as riffing a little on that movie. There's also a nod to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction when Kalpa opens up an illegally procured suitcase with mysteriously glowing contents. Of course, Tarantino stole it from Kiss Me Deadly (1955), so all theft is fair game in loving movie homages.

The movie veers unsteadily from lighthearted youth film to glitzed-up crime saga, with some full-blown melodrama added for good measure. The mix never really comes together, but de Jong seems genuinely compassionate towards his characters, if a bit confused as to how to depict their world.

And in an era of frequently homogenous visual style, it's great to see a young director taking some chances. I'm not sure how the blinking disco lights in Kalpa's apartment or his Hostel-like personal sausage factory exist in the same world as the rest of Ayoub's warm, pastel-colored environs, but hey, they do look pretty darn cool.

The writer-director does a more seamless job blending the performances of non-professionals with more experienced actors. Ayoub Elasri (one of several cast members whose characters go by their real first names) is believable and likable in the lead role—an unmannered presence a more polished actor might not pull off. Rapper/actor Freddy Tratlehner does tend to overwhelm the proceedings, chewing the scenery as Kalpa, but he's fun to watch.

Prince has plenty of iffy moments to pick apart, but on the whole it leaves you excited to see where de Jong goes next. He's clearly a dynamic visual artist and if his storytelling skills are less assured, at least they seem to come from an honest place.

Prince. Written and directed by Sam de Jong. Starring Ayoub Elasri, Sigrid ten Napel and Freddy Tratlehner. 78 mins. In Dutch with English subtitles. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, Aug. 14 at Facets Cinémathèque and available through some on-demand services.