“Prince” is a curious little film. Is it enjoyable to watch? For the most part, yes. But, with a runtime of less than 80 minutes, it takes the movie way too long to figure out what it wants to be. Sam de Jong’s “Prince” is essentially a coming-of-age story, containing the usual mix of teen romance and familial drama, but on occasion, the movie also plunges into a surrealistic criminal underworld with scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Ordinarily, there’d be nothing wrong with such a wild blend of genres, but in a short movie like this, a lack of real emotional depth too often makes it feel like an empty exercise in style. “Prince” may be visually intriguing, and there are a handful of genuinely insightful moments, but it’s too slight and disjointed to make a long-lasting impression once it’s over.
The film centers on Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri), a half-Moroccan/half-Dutch teenager who lives in an Amsterdam housing project with his mother and sister. His mother is sad, lonely, and spends most of her time looking for love on the internet. His sister is often amused by Ayoub, but is stifled by his tendency to want to control her love life. Ayoub and his older sister do not share the same father—Ayoub’s father presumably separated from his mother quite some time ago. Ayoub, who gets his Moroccan blood from his father, visits him a couple times in the film. Each time he visits, his father seems to have succumbed deeper and deeper into a heroin addiction. His friends, his bullies, and his family have nothing but disparaging things to say about Ayoub’s dad. His sister, at one point, warns him to never become like his father.
Ayoub would like to think he and his father have nothing in common, and yet the incessant ridicule he receives regarding his skin color serves as a daily reminder about where he comes from. He doesn’t want to become like father, but at the same time, he finds himself more and more isolated from the rest of his family. After one particular fight with a bully leaves him with a black eye and a sorely bruised ego, the only person left to turn to is Kalpa, an erratic and violent criminal who also happens to be the proud owner of a purple Lamborghini. Kalpa lets Ayoub tag along for a few jobs, but pretty soon, Kalpa’s violent ways wind up being too much to handle for the young man.
When you look at “Prince” as a whole, it’s really just your standard story of a teenager losing his innocence. But thanks to a bright color palette and a synth-heavy soundtrack, “Prince” gives off a warm, welcoming vibe despite being set around a housing project. No matter how familiar the story beats are, you still want to be invested in the lives of these characters and get a deeper understanding of Ayoub’s world. Unfortunately, there are too many times when Sam de Jong’s highly stylized approach comes across as excessive, which does a great disservice to the potentially engrossing drama that develops between Ayoub and his friends and family.
What also gets shortchanged is the supposed romance between Ayoub and a beautiful, slightly older girl named Laura (Sigrid ten Napel). The movie begins and ends with Ayoub pining over the girl and there are other moments here and there when he attempts to pursue her. But as “Prince” enters into heavier, darker territory dealing with drugs and gang activity, it’s hard to remain invested in this cute little romance between the two. With so little time spent developing Laura’s character, it makes their potential union seem like nothing more than wishful thinking on Ayoub’s part.
On the performance-front, “Prince” is a bit of a mixed bag. The entire film basically hinges on Ayoub Elasri’s performance, and the young actor mostly delivers. The same cannot be said about the supporting cast, the majority of whom fall a little flat. “Prince” is a feature-length film debut for most of these actors so it wouldn’t be right to be too hard on them for their shortcomings. It’s during the moments when Ayoub deals with the bullies or with Kalpa, where it seems some of these actors were completely out of their element. Peter Douwma, who plays Ronnie, is flat out unconvincing as the head bully. Meanwhile Freddy Tratlehner’s performance as Kalpa nearly brings the entire film to a screeching halt with his feeble attempts at playing the creepy, unhinged kingpin. Luckily, he’s only in the film for a brief period, but it’s hard to forget such an off-putting performance.
Again, though, “Prince” is still an intriguing film. It contains a healthy dose of social commentary, touching upon issues of class, racism, and drug abuse. There is just never a unifying element that makes “Prince” feel cohesive enough to work as a whole. It wants to be cute, it wants to cool, and it also wants to be thoughtful and engaging, but Sam de Jong is unable to make the story feel tight and focused enough to allow it to succeed on all those levels. [C+]