Prince Dir. Sam de Jong

[FilmBuff; 2015]

Styles: coming-of-age film
Others: Drive, the 400 Blows

Dutch director Sam de Jong’s feature-length debut Prince feels familiar in all the wrong ways. A coming-of-age story relying on a series of clichés, the film uncomfortably pairs what at first promises to be a social critique of poverty and race in contemporary Amsterdam with shimmering synthesizers, intricately-manicured fashion, and suavely-composed cinematography. Occasionally deliberately jarring, and constantly deliberately 80s, Prince’s style-over-substance feel betrays de Jong’s previous work as a music video director, and unfortunately for the director’s premiere feature, its foundation is a mixture of the hip and the real that is flawed from the very start.

Prince chronicles the adolescent wanderings of Ayoub (Ayoub Elsari), a Dutch-Moroccan teenager living in a mostly-abandoned housing project. In between bouts of standing around the projects chewing sunflower seeds with his three friends — an activity that seems to consume a vast amount of time — he navigates a smorgasbord of familiar teenage film tropes: a troubled mother and drug-addled father, a rival bully, a desire for an escape from his limited world, and of course, an unattainable girl named Laura (Sigrid ten Napel) who just happens to be the girlfriend of said bully. In his quest to transcend his circumstances and prove himself to his peers in the projects, Ayoub falls in with a gangster named Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner), and the film grows darker and more surreal as he gives in to the temptations of power and violence in exchange for status and acceptance.

As the ostensible story of a teenager of color growing up in the projects and dreaming of a better life, there’s lots of potential in Prince for an in-depth exploration of Ayoub and his social circumstances. This potential is never truly delivered upon, although it has its occasional moments of success. One example is the constant focus on Ayoub’s self-image. Gazing at his reflection in the window of a Lamborghini while his friends recite brand names, staring at himself in his bedroom mirror while he describes how he’ll woo his love interest, flexing his muscles to impress his sister — all of these moments quietly establish Ayoub’s desperate need to grow into a different version of himself, to become a sort of hyper-masculine Super Ayoub. They establish a clear thread, then, to why Ayoub feels so deeply protective of his sister and mother, why he feels so deeply betrayed when she starts dating another boy from the projects, and why he slowly grows more violent and aggressive as he seeks to emulate the more successful teens in the projects.

Unfortunately, this same clear thread is much of the film’s undoing. The streamlined cause-and-effect nature of Ayoub’s evolution into a tough guy is about as much depth as is ever established in Prince. Without any further complexity of character or circumstance, any claims of real social commentary in the film fall by the wayside.

Additionally, Prince is often overcome by an intense over-stylization that equally undermines its attempts to exist within the tradition of the social problem film. Coated in a hip, inexplicably 80s aesthetic and accompanied by a synth-pop soundtrack composed by Kai Hugo, Prince’s glossy neon aesthetic is reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Yet whereas Refn’s 2011 film used this same aesthetic as a foil for a terrifyingly violent noir caper, Sam de Jong’s use of heavy stylization only dampens any attempts at meaningful impact. It’s tough to buy into a social commentary where tracksuited bullies with fanny packs intimate teens with messenger bags, utilizing synths and stylish slow-motion. The Wes Anderson-esque cinematography of Prince — flat, highly-composed images, always with enough space to draw attention to their intentionally awkward nature — similarly brings to mind Anderson’s own failings in attempting social commentary (read: The Darjeeling Limited).

Given Sam de Jong’s own background in music videos, it isn’t entirely surpising that Prince is a film where style and aesthetic seemingly come first, and characters and message come second. And for de Jong to transcend his feature-length debut — much as Ayoub dreams of transcending his circumstances — he will need to explore greater depths than Prince is able to reach.

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