‘Princess’: Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A remarkable achievement in so many ways, but bound to deeply divide viewers

Israeli director Tali Shalom Ezer’s debut stars discovery Shira Haas as a 12-year-old girl trying to survive a deeply dysfunctional family

An oneiric evocation of shameful desire, adolescent trauma and very bad parenting, Israeli director Tali Shalom Ezer’s debut is a remarkable achievement. Featuring terrific performances, particularly from lead Shira Haas, and a sense of directorial control over every frame, it’s nevertheless a film destined to divide viewers over its ambiguous screenplay, troubling conclusion, and an explicit rape scene that some viewers may feel goes too far. This multiple award-winner at the Jerusalem film festival and a Sundance competitor will attract plenty of attention from festivals, but only distributors in more liberal territories are likely to take a chance on theatrical release.

Although the actor was 16-years-old when she shot this, Haas’ protagonist Adar is meant to be 12, and she really looks the part with her petite frame and baby-smooth complexion. Adar lives in a Tel Aviv suburb with her mother Alma (comedian-actor Keren Mor, from Ronit Elkabetz’s 7 Days), a doctor, and Alma’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer, A Strange Course of Events), a teacher who’s mysteriously quit his job to spend all day mooching about the house.

From the very first scenes, it’s clear that Alma and Michael have intense libidos and serious problems with boundaries, especially when it comes to Adar. Frequently indulging in randy public displays of affection, given to flouncing about in their underwear, and never stopping to think that their noisy love-making might be overheard by the child in the next room, they almost seem to be drawing Adar into their sexualized, touchy-feely atmosphere. She often gets into bed with them in the night, even when they’re in the middle of having sex, and no one seems to mind.

By slow degrees, what at first seems like just hippy-dippy permissiveness starts to take on a sinister aspect, especially when Michael and Adar indulge in frisky games of physical horseplay that would seem innocuous between a man and little kid, but look decidedly inappropriate given Adar’s budding femininity. As part of some weird flirtatious private joke, he often uses Hebrew’s masculine pronouns when addressing her, calling her his “prince” instead of princess. Her beaming smiles suggest she relishes the attention, especially as it seems to make Alma – with whom she has an often combative relationship - a little jealous.

Out playing hooky from school one day at the beach, Adar sees a young man about her age named Alan (Adar Zohar Hanetz) who thanks to an astonishing bit of casting looks like her identical twin, if identical twins could be of different sexes. Homeless, and possibly working as a rent boy, Alan has a cocky confidence and self-contained quality that’s irresistible. They spend the day hanging out, buying matching t-shirts and watching Alan’s friends pick up johns. When Alma and Michael finally find them out late that night way past bedtime, Adar casually announces that he’s coming to live with them, and they numbly accept him into their home.

After this point, the film starts getting progressively weirder as the presence of Alan shifts the power dynamics in the home, and the border between fantasy and reality becoming increasingly blurred.

However, there’s one scene which we’re undoubtedly meant to read as really happening to Adar, and spoiler-phobes should stop reading now if they don’t want to know. Towards the end, she is raped by Michael. Shot close up so that their bodies fill the screen in one unbroken cut, it’s a harrowing, nauseating sequence. Ezer explains in the press notes that she felt very conflicted about including the rape, but was persuaded by a script advisor to show it otherwise she would be “abandoning” her protagonist in “the most hard and difficult moment of [her] life.”

Now, putting aside the peculiarity of treating a fictional character as if she was a real person, the decision to include this scene is likely to divide audiences. Ezer, the crew and the cast may have sincerely intended to show the horror of the situation, but some will find the imagery inherently exploitative, and potentially arousing for the wrong kind of viewer, especially since Hass looks so much like a 12-year-old girl. Does the fact that she wasn’t actually 12 make it alright? Or the fact that the film is so manifestly against abuse? It’s a question each individual viewer will have to decide for themselves, but the will certainly scare off some potential acquisitions executives.

Once again, it should be stressed that the film is very sensitively made, perceptive about the psychology of people in such situations (especially with regards to Alma’s in-denial mother), and intensely atmospheric thanks to Ishai Adar’s insinuating soundtrack and Radek Ladczuk’s spooky, hazy lensing. (It seems apt somehow that he also shot the recent Australian horror film The Babadook.) Unfortunately, the narrative endgame is a mess, and should have been rethought in development, but there’s no denying Ezer has made a bold, audacious debut.  

Production companies: A Rabinovich Foundation for The Arts, United King Films, Reshet, Mifal HaPais, Marker Films presentation of a Marker Films, United King Films production
Cast: Shira Haas, Keren Mor, Ori Pfeffer, Adar Zohar Hanetz, Shimon Mimran, Amitay Yaish Benuosilio, Ariel Weitzman
Director/screenwriter: Tali Shalom Ezer
Producers: Elad Gavish, Moshe Edery, Leon Edery
Director of photography: Radek Ladczuk
Production designer: Dror Elhadad
Costume designer: Tal Mer
Editor: Neta Dvorkis
Composer: Ishai Adar
Casting: Esther Kling
Sales: Marker Films

No rating, 92 minutes