'Prince (Prins)': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Ayoub Elasri in 'Prince'
Sentiment trumps self-consciousness in a flawed but likeable debut

A Dutch-Moroccan youth navigates the tricky first steps to manhood in the Amsterdam projects in this kickoff to the 2015 Berlinale's Generation 14Plus section.

In Dutch first-time writer-director Sam de Jong's Prince, life on a low-income Amsterdam housing estate offers limited avenues for a bunch of awkward-age youths who fantasize about fast cars, beautiful girls, Rolexes and cool designer clothes. Thuggery, crime and ruthless oneupmanship are presented as the swiftest means to that end. However, this uneven but sweet bildungsroman is distinguished by its light tone and idiosyncratic handle on genre conventions. Alternately playful and clumsy, the opening film in Berlin's Generation 14Plus section is a modest entry that nonetheless should connect with its target teen audience.

Serious 17-year-old Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri) lives with his lonely Dutch mother (Elsie de Brauw) and cute half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale), who's starting to turn heads among Ayoub's peers. His Moroccan father (Chaib Massaoudi) is a homeless junkie, and while Ayoub regularly seeks him out and slips him whatever cash he can, he tends to get stigmatized for his roots by the older tough guys on the estate.

Led by sneering bully Ronnie (Peter Douma), this clique of low-level criminals is high on macho posturing and intimidation tactics, but their behavior remains stuck in adolescence as they tool around on their quad bikes. "Our time will come," says Ayoub while observing them, more as psychological motivation for himself than his buddies. He makes no secret of his interest in flirty blonde Laura (Sigrid ten Napel), undeterred by the knowledge that she’s Ronnie's girlfriend.

Ayoub figures that the way to get Laura's attention is to pump up his own tough-guy status, so he offers his services to sleazy local kingpin Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner), despite apparently well-founded rumors that he's an unhinged sociopath. Meanwhile, Ayoub's protective instincts toward Demi cause him to fall out with his best friend and Ronnie's brother, Franky (Jorik Scholten). But in sentimental though narratively efficient fashion, a tragedy pulls the opposing factions together and heals the rifts while Ayoub earns new respect.

The threat of violence and descent down a criminal path drive the story, but de Jong offsets that element with disarming innocence, keeping Ayoub relatively untarnished as a central character despite his questionable choices. While his yearning for guidance comes through with poignancy in interludes with his drug-fried father, it's the affection evident in scenes with his mother and sister, as well as Laura's gradual thaw from teasing standoffishness to receptive warmth that give the movie its heart.

The film's title pertains to an understated fairy-tale strain in Ayoub's emergence as a young man whose kingdom may not be as circumscribed as it appears, and who has as much right as anyone to dream of wooing the princess.

The director underlines the play-acting aspect of his characters' badass attitudes by framing them in highly composed shots against the estate's drab architecture like heroes, villains and posses out of a Western. He also employs stylized, hip hop-inflected dialogue riffs to varying effect, along with elements of comic-strip action and melodrama. Even if de Jong's command of the shifting styles is inconsistent, the movie has a quirky spirit that makes it easy to enjoy.

Performances by the mainly non-professional cast are solid, though the director indulges a taste for exaggeration that can be hit or miss, notably in white rapper Tratlehner's unrestrained mugging as Kalpa, which tips over into silly caricature. The 1980s-flavored synth scoring by Palmbomen (the stage name of Dutch musician Kai Hugo) ranges from John Carpenter-esque ambient unease to energizing techno beats, though to avoid being made to cringe, it's best to tune out the occasional English lyrics.

Production companies: 100% Halal, Vice

Cast: Ayoub Elasri, Jorik Scholten, Achraf Meziani, Oussama Addi, Elsie de Brauw, Sigrid ten Napel, Olivia Lonsdale, Chaib Massaoudi, Dean Liedermooy, Peter Douma, Colin George, Vincent van de Waal, Freddy Tratlehner

Director-screenwriter: Sam de Jong

Producers: Gijs Kerbosch, Roel Oude Nijhuis, Gijs Determeijer

Director of photography: Paul Ozgur

Production designer: Sanne Schat

Costume designer: Nedda Nagel

Music: Palmbomen

Editor: Mieneke Kramer

Casting: Sam de Jong

Sales: Mongrel International

No rating, 78 minutes.