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Mid-teen Ayoub and his half-sister Demi, of who he is protective, live with their lonely, divorced mother, Saskia, in the projects of Amsterdam. Although he loves both his parents, he doesn't want Demi to turn out like their mother, or he like his junkie father, Mo. Ayoub spends much of his time just hanging out with his neighborhood friends, participating in typical teenager hi-jinx, such as blowing up garbage containers. However, he is also beginning to notice girls, the object of his affection being Laura, who also lives in the projects. Laura has no time for Ayoub, and he in turn finds out the hard way that she is the girlfriend of Ronnie, one of the older neighborhood thugs, and brother of his friend Franky. Regardless, Ayoub wants to impress Laura, he believing to do so by becoming what he thinks she likes: a tough guy. Ayoub senses an opportunity to make that transformation when he starts doing odd jobs for Kalpa, a local criminal. Kalpa is eccentric, volatile, violent and ... Written by
Like a blissed out Nicolas Winding Refn infused with John Hughes on the 400 Blows route.
The most notable recent Dutch contributions to cinema is a bleak slate not for their quality, but for their content. Sam De Jong's debut Prince is no less bleak in its mid-section as it surveys the criminal underworld of Amsterdam, but it's sandwiched between blissed-out and confidently stylized coming-of-age snippets. In the minutes running down to one of the most dynamic opening credits sequences of the year, you can clearly identify the influences smeared on its sleeve. The slick neon of Nicolas Winding Refn is washed out, decomposed and infused with the teen angst of John Hughes. But this road takes the 400 Blows route to the bubbling tension of La Haine, that is until we're somehow right back to the Hughes flavour.
Half-Dutch, half-Moroccan Ayoub (played by Ayoub Elsari) is a 17 year old junkie already deep into the wrong crowd on his disadvantaged estate. His small gang of four is the junior to an older gang, including one of Ayoub's friend's brother, who thrive on constantly demeaning them. Despite the odds, Ayoub is deeply infatuated with the older gangleader Ronnie's girlfriend, Laura, complete with delightfully indulgent slo-mo every time she's on screen. The only way to win her over is to beat Ronnie at his own game by becoming the new right hand man, ala Prince, to local dealer and cool car owner Kalpa, ala King. Meanwhile, Ayoub is a source of comfort and conflict with his home life, individually supporting his lonely mother, his drug addicted father, and half-sister, who's also finding herself embroiled in the gangs.
De Jong's direction is much stronger than his script. While it's a classic underdog story that's easy to become intrigued as to how it's going to play out, the results aren't quite as satisfying as what it sets up. The story revolves around Ayoub, but it's busy with too many peripheral characters for any of them to stand out, especially what should have been a surefire winner with his dad. Therefore when it tries to grant emotional gratification, it isn't earned. Though the unfortunate lightweightness comes from Ayoub's family, they do give the film a warmth that it would otherwise seriously lack with the overly macho nature of the gang life. The cast of non-actors don't quite feel as comfortable with the affection De Jong wants them to portray which hinders the naturalism. Nevertheless, they still provide an innocent charm to the film that keeps it from feeling too gritty.
The film shines when it's time to deliver visual and aural thrills. Derivative or not, De Jong knows how to use the camera, and offers a very interesting sense of rhythm in the editing, that's both static and striking. The world is painted vividly and it's easy to get wrapped up in its dream-like style that decompartmentalizes its set of characters. The boys are obsessed with the glitz of gangster life and the pulsating 80s synth soundtrack provides the sheen and energy to match their desires. I wish it had a comment on these violent cycles of gangster hierarchy as it instead shies away from lingering senses of menace in the third act. The film is less than 80 minutes long and its sense of finality feels unsteady from numerous loose ends. Prince is still an impressive but incomplete debut up to that point and as far as Refn comparisons are concerned, I really wouldn't have minded if Ryan Gosling made this instead of whatever Lost River turned out to be.
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