“I don’t have time for child’s play.”
If Max from Where the Wild Things Are, instead of traveling to mystical worlds and befriending wild beasts, came into his own as a gangster’s protégée, was driven around in a purple Lamborghini and tried to win the affections of a pretty nearby girl in the process, you’d get something resembling writer/director Sam De Jong’s debut Prince.
Though it bares no relation to the artist currently/formally/currently sharing the same name, it does enthuse the musician’s love for piercing purple flair, ‘80s eccentricities and a grooving sense of rhythm. Although, it primarily meshes the modern sensibilities of Nicolas Winding Refn, Harmony Korine and even a little Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson for good measure — all while adhering to familiar tropes on maturity, friendship, family and acceptance. It wears its inspirations with pride on his sleeves, and is never afraid to show of its style and atmosphere in a moment’s notice. The combination of style variations and narrative traits doesn’t necessarily produce something harmonious, but the slickly-made, Vice-distributed Norwegian film knows how to keep its spirits up, its energy controlled and one-or-two of its extremities played up unabashedly within its plot. This is all while paying proper attention to the lead’s arc and his emotional journey.
Our bull-headed but good-natured 17-year-old protagonist, Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri), lives a seemingly simple life in his poverty-stricken Amsterdam housing complex admit the emotional complexities surrounding him. His father’s (Chaib Massoudi) a junkie and out-of-the-picture, save for the occasional visit to his son by abandoned pools during the day or under streetlamps at night, and his mother (Elsie de Brauw) struggles to combat her loneliness and raise Ayoub and his half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale) in the process. Provided with little resources, mostly on account of giving a lot of money to his father, Ayoub spends his days roaming the streets alongside his buddies, as they spit seeds and talk girls while he looks longingly at his neighborhood crush Laura (Sigrid ten Napel) from afar.
Just when he begins to muster up the courage to ask her out on a date, however, town bully Ronnie (Peter Douma) crushes his meager intentions and takes his girl, his crushing disappointment only made worst by knowing she thinks of him as little more than a bum, despite being good friends with his sibling. With this on his mind in the midst of falling-out with his best friend and Ronnie’s brother Franky (Jorik Scholten) once he starts seeing his sister behind his back, Ayoub tries to macho up his tough-guy status by befriending local gangster kingpin Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner), an eccentric and ill-mannered criminal shaking up our lead’s well-being as he attempts to make him his successor. As his innocence begins to dissipate, so too do Ayoub’s insecurities fade. But whether or not he’ll become a better person in the process becomes unanswered until moments of tragedy and betrayal lead up to some life-impacting actions.
Like Ayoub, Prince is a little too preoccupied with appearing cool to become completely cool. Music video director Jong is more Joseph Kahn than David Fincher in his first endeavor towards filmmaking. He echoes the styles of others, not afraid to give away from signature visuals and unabashedly haunting visuals, but doesn’t quite know how to use them in the service of the plot. His direction feels a little inorganic, solely because he’s not entirely sure where to take himself in the midst of his uneven and rushed storyline. At a mere 77 minutes, Jong’s movie is brisk, tight and yet, while it does cover a lot of ground, it can’t necessarily become more than a slight but entirely amusing coming-of-age tale.
The heart begins to come towards the end, but its conclusion is furbished. The finale is one that’s quick to please, which counteracts against the unrelenting uniqueness of the neon-colored second act. Its message is entirely recycled and, though the execution lends to some beautiful imagery, the pathos of the moments aren’t necessarily as fulfilled. It’s also not benefited from shallow female characters and hastily compacted resolutions to major plot threads.
Those criticisms aside, despite the bumps in the road, the machine is well oiled and the ride comes across smoother in the moment than in recollection. Although the cast is primarily an inexperienced bunch, almost every performance is tender and genuine in their own right, adding well to the heart needed to make this come together. Even when they’re not, though, they’re often wildly entertaining — especially the madcap Tratlehner and his giddy little henchmen (whom, I believe, goes unnamed throughout). On the technical level, the entire production is well-varnished and composted, featuring exceptional lightning and cinematography from Reinout Bakker and Paul Ozgur, respectively, not to mention an absolutely awesome original score from Palmbomen. The latter brings to the film its funk and soul with hearty portions, while also adding a downplayed queasiness exuberant in John Carpenter’s best work and also mimicked similarly in last year’s The Guest to satisfyingly uneasy results.
Speaking of which, the entire ‘80s fixation of Prince never serves much depth to the film — especially considering the more universal approach it gives to time — but it does, ultimately, play into the rad vibes ensued throughout. Diligently made but strikingly unfazed, Jong’s confident-if-overeager filmmaking introduction proves his vision is on the rise, though it’s not quite focused or original enough to strike himself as independent of his peers. Never becoming a must-see because of this, it nevertheless remains too impressionable to ignore. There’s enough glamor and sweetness here to make the small exploit a worthwhile sit, and it’s just wicked enough to make you root for its success in its sprint for the crown.