'Princess of the Row': Film Review

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
An uneven but sincere portrait of filial devotion.

Tayler Buck plays a girl struggling to protect her mentally ill father in Van Maximilian Carlson's drama.

Fully identified with a preteen heroine facing challenges that have no good solutions, Van Maximilian Carlson's Princess of the Row views even the harshest realities of homelessness through the eyes of someone who stubbornly believes in happy endings. Sentimental at times but not as cloying as its title may suggest, the polished production benefits from the happily un-cute lead performance of young star Tayler Buck, whose determination suits the weighty social issues driving the plot.

Buck's Alicia, nicknamed Princess in happier times, has bounced through some foster homes but spends much of her time in Los Angeles' Skid Row, tending to her homeless father. (Her mother left long ago.) Beaumont Willis (Edi Gathegi, unshowy in a challenging part) was an ideal dad before going to war in Iraq, where a traumatic brain injury and PTSD wrecked him: Today he's severely detached from reality, nearly entirely uncommunicative. He only recognizes his daughter on rare occasions, and then only fleetingly.

Beaumont lives in a tent — "he don't like shelters," Alicia tells a do-gooder — and hasn't managed to connect with those who should be helping him at the VA. So while child-welfare workers and other adults try to keep Alicia in school and under a roof, she takes every opportunity to sneak to her father's side, steering him away from violent confrontations. (Beaumont still has a soldier's muscle memory, though: In one of the film's most arresting scenes, he unexpectedly springs into action when threatened by a man with a shotgun.)

Long-suffering social worker Magdalene (Ana Ortiz), struggling to find foster parents Alicia will connect with, thinks she has the perfect pair with warm, generous John and Carolina (Martin Sheen and Jenny Gago): He's a bestselling author, and an eager audience for the stories Alicia writes about princesses and unicorns. But they live ten hours from L.A., and the match doesn't last.

Though it never generates the intensity of a real fugitive tale, much of the film has Alicia on the run, dragging Beaumont along without seeming to know where they should go. A couple of very ugly episodes put the pair through the kind of suffering you'd expect from life on the street, some of it made doubly poignant by Beaumont's inability to comfort his daughter.

But as grim as it gets, the movie's strong urge toward uplift is never in doubt — sometimes to a fault. Carlson and cowriter Alan Shawn Austin realize there's not a very plausible solution to Beaumont's situation (at least not in the short term), so they struggle to allow their protagonists to reconcile themselves emotionally to an unacceptable reality. For Alicia, a promising kid whose future is very much at risk, their answer may be the only thing that makes sense. But Princess hits a dishonest note when it tries to gloss over the tradeoff her rescue requires.

Production company: Big Boss Creative
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures (available Friday, November 27, in select theaters, on Digital Platforms and VOD)
Cast: Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jenny Gago, Jacob Vargas
Director-Editor: Van Maximilian Carlson
Screenwriters: Alan Shawn Austin, Van Maximilian Carlson
Producers: Alan Shawn Austin, Edi Gathegi
Executive producers: Davy Duhamel, Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary, Kirk Palayan
Director of photography: Maz Makhani
Production designer: Sonja Kroop
Costume designer: Dagmarette Yen
Composer: Julian Scherle
Casting director: Nicki Katz

85 minutes