Young Moroccan toughs living on the edge in Amsterdam become a metaphor for all post-teens
by Dwight Casimere
"PRINCE" is the feature debut of acclaimed Dutch music video director Sam de Jong. In theaters and VOD beginning Friday, August 14th, it is one of the most compelling films to be released this past weekend. Debuted at the 2015 Berlinale where it received an honorary mention for the coveted Crystal Bear award for Best First Feature, it is sure to change the template for future 'coming of age' films. Produced by 100% Halal films and released by FilmBuff in partnership with VICE Media, the film is in Dutch with English subtitles, and stars newcomer Ayoub Elasri as Ayoub.
Filmed against the backdrop of the bleak 'jects that ring the outskirts of Amsterdam, PRINCE depicts the hardscrabble existence of a mixed bag of North African, African and local Dutch townies jousting for dominance, romance and bling.
Just on the cusp of manhood, these post-adolescents are obsessed with the universal passions of all red-blooded Western civilization males--fast cars, designer clothes and pretty girls. One of the opening scenes shows one of the local toughs hawking fake designer clothes and knockoff luxury watches and jewelry from the back of a van.
Although the setting of PRINCE is world's apart from the U.S. cities of New York and Los Angeles where it is currently premiering, it depicts a social landscape that is all too familiar; bored, impoverished teens living in a concrete wasteland with no money, too much time on their hands and the fool's gold lure of the thug life. Thus, the film's universal message and ultimate appeal.
Starring newcomer Ayoub Elasri, the film follows 17 year old Ayoub, a mixed-racial youth whose Dutch mother, Saskia (Elsie de Brauw) and comely half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale) are set virtually adrift by her estranged Moroccan husband, Mo Bouslimane (played with elegiac pathos by Chaib Massaoudi in a standout performance), who has turned over his life for the needle. He is apathetic figure, but there is something almost Christ-like in his suffering. He has chosen to view life from the sidelines, taking on the burden of suffering for all those around him.
The film begins with the usual mix of pubescent pissing contests and annoying pranks that are the hallmark of the young male species. The boys are seen standing around idly in the concrete square at the center of their drab public housing development, sucking on sunflower seeds, spitting and bragging about seducing girls (which they've never done) and amassing bling (which none of them can afford). "I need new shoes," one of them says, to no one in particular. "I'm starting to look like a bum." The symbolism of that remark will play out later in the film when Ayoub is given an expensive pair of Zanotti sneakers by Kalpa, the local gangster, as a down payment for future fealty.
One of the funniest early scenes is one in which Achraf (Achraf Meziani) tries to show the rest of the gang how to kiss a girl. He goes through all the motions, with exaggerated gestures of his arms surrounding an imaginary girl, showing first how to hold her around the hips and then apply some tongue action once their lips combine. Its an hilarious moment that truly exemplifies the folly of youth.
The drone of endless bullshit is suddenly broken by the loud explosion of a nearby trashcan with an M60 firecracker by Oussi (Oussama Addi), an inveterate teen prankster who is part of the aimless group.
Ayoub and the group hang enviously around the purple Lamborghini that belongs to the local drug kingpin Kalpa, played with scene-chewing apishness by internationally known Dutch rapper Freddy Tratlehner. Ayoub also has his eye on the local neighborhood blond cutie, Laura (Sigrid ten Napel), whose boyfriend just happens to be Ronnie (Peter Douma), the bullying leader of the local lunch-money stealing, low level crooks, who, in contrast to Kalpa's flashy Lamborghini, parade around town on noisy four-wheeler ATV's. They'd be pathetically comical if they weren't so malevolent.
Ayoub soon clashes with his best friend Frankie (Jorik Scholten) over Laura's affection. That puts him squarely in the cross-hairs of Frankie's older brother Ronnie, leader of the wolf-pack. Ronnie and his henchmen gang up on Ayoub. Ronnie derides him..."you f...n' Moroccan!" then spits in his face. That happens more than once in PRINCE. Then, Ronnie and his henchmen pin him down and beat him to a pulp. Again, Ronnie spits on him, as if to pour salt on his wounds. Ayoub vows revenge.
Director de Jong and his production team do an excellent job of visually and audibly depicting PRINCE's mise en scene. Production designer Sanne Schat and Director of photography Paul Ozgur, depict the spartan, flora and fauna-less world in which the characters live. The exterior is often played out in wide shots with little camera movement so that the audience clearly sees and feels the oppressive bleak nature of the world in which the protagonists exist. Editor Mieneke Kramer orchestrated the shots to allow for ample time for the emotion behind the words and actions to sink in, with sudden flashes of close-up violence resonating amidst the long, wide angled shots. Costume designer Nedda Nagel replicates the ad hoc mix of shabbiness, bling and copious tattoos that mark the current garb of today's youth. The score, by Palmbomen (aka Dutch musician Kai Hugo) is a genius mix of '80s synth Rock up to today's restless techno beats. The inclusion of Andrea Bocelli's moving rendition of Sartori and Quarantotto's Con te Partiro (With You I Will Leave) as the closing anthem, is a stroke of genius,
We very quickly meet Ayoub's family. He first stumbles upon his loopy mother in their cramped public housing apartment, dancing hypnotically to Spectral Display's "It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love," no doubt a throwback to her comparatively happier and more glamorous past. She dances unaware of Ayoub's presence, who smiles, bemused by his mother's unexpected abandon. She turns, hair disheveled and mascara running. For her, it is a bittersweet moment. The internal angst and longing in her face is poignant.
Ayoub repairs to the cluttered bedroom he shares with his half sister Demi. They immediately have a heart-to-heart in which he demands of her "Promise me you won't turn out like Mom," to which she counters, "Promise me you won't turn out like your father."
Later, we see them together, Mother and Son, scrolling through an online dating website in search of a new mate for her. After Ayoub weighs in on a few obvious losers, they finally settle on an affable looking chap, who actually turns out to be the right stuff. We see Ayoub once again walk into the apartment, and upon seeing his mother relaxing blissfully on the sofa, her womanly desires satisfied, in a bright yellow bathrobe (apprently reserved for that 'special occassion,' Ayoub declares, "Mom, I want you to have every happiness." It is an unusually prescient statement from a youth who has had to grow up all too soon in a single parent household.
Ayoub spends a great deal of time retreating into his own space in his tiny room, flexing his puny biceps in front of his mother and sister. "See my guns!" he says. The rest of the time, he's doing situps as if frantically trying to speed up the process of achieving manhood.
Ayoub goes to visit his father, Mo, in the abandoned squalor in which he lives, babbling non-sensically, wallowing in filth and shooting up with heroin. Ayoub rubs his father's mangy, filthy hair incessantly, as if trying to scrape beneath the damaged, deranged surface of his tousled visage to find the loving father, mentor and husband he and his mother apparently once knew. "He's a little bird," his mother said of her estranged husband's danaged soul, remorsefully.
Mo remains distant, only briefly coming to life when Ayoub declares "Dad, I'm in Love." But even that door remains unopened. Mo only laughs and offers no constructive advice. Ayoub gives him what little money he has so that is father has money to buy dope. It's a pathetic exchange that seems to be routine and the only concrete connection between them. They exchange a wrinkled postcard, which the father declares is "Whistler," perhaps its an image painted by the famous artist. However, its a cinematic conceit that escaped this reviewer and probably will go right over the heads of most filmgoers.
The pathos between Ayoub and his father is achingly touch. Mo asked Ayoub for his last two euros so he can get another fix. It turns out to be his last. This is the film's denouement.
Director de Jong's camera follows Ayoub through the barren, concrete landscape of his environment. He is brutally honest in his portrayal of the in-your-face brutality that is part of the day to day lives its inhabitants. (One of the opening scenes shows Ronnie slit the throat of an obviously addled young man who had approached his younger brother in an inappropriate manner. This happened right out in the open, in the complex square in broad daylight!) Ayoub desperately wants to strike back at all the ugliness around him. It almost begins to take him over and make him a part of it. Yet, within him, we sense that there's something more.
Kalpa also sees something in Ayoub, and early on enlists him to be his understudy. Ayoub resists, but after the death of his father, relents. He enters Kalpa's lair and the two engage in much chest-beating and consumption of lines of cocaine, like Marines gorging on raw meat in preparation for battle. It is then that the reasoning behind the film's title comes to light.
Kalpa gives Ayoub a garrish crown that he keeps atop a bust of Julius Caesar. With its fake purple gem stone as the crown jewel, it is an almost surreal coronation. Kalpa throws Ayoub the keys to his Lamborghini and tells him to drive. It is Ayou's crowning moment both literally and figuratively. He is finally given the props that have eluded him. Later, Kalpa gives him a gun and instructs to exact revenge against his tormentors. Gun in hand, with the crown on his head, Ayoub has to make a choice. It is only then that his father's dying image gives him the courage to become his own man.
Although a newcomer, de Jong shows considerable directorial 'chops.' He interweaves scenes teen pranks and slapstick physical comedy with sudden bursts of violence, and surreal images in a masterful way. The dream sequencees symbolize both Prince's inner turmoil and his lofty aspirations.
Clocking in at just under 80 minutes, the film seems to wrap it up a bit abruptly, as if the producers suddenly had run out of money or had another project to rush off to. Its too bad, because this film could have used a little more explication and definitely a more precise ending. Still, its a compelling look at the problems and pitfalls that confront urban teens everywhere.
Director de Jong shot the film very near the tough neighborhood where he grew up and, in some ways, the film is somewhat autobiographical in terms of its portrayal of a specific environment. In this film about young, urban Dutch life, he has created a work that resonates across national and cultural lines. It shows how youth in western society are all living life poised on a razor's edge.
80 minutes long
in Dutch with English subtitles
presented by FILMBUFF and VICE
in select theaters August 14 and on all major VOD plarforms, including Amazon Instant Video, Comcast's Xfinity TV, Google Play, iTunes, Sony Play Station Store, Time Warner Cable, Verizon FiOS, Vudu and Xbox Video.