“Prince”, Sam de Jong’s directorial debut is just another coming of age opus though it’s not just another coming of age opus. Yes, its aesthetic references filmmaker after filmmaker, barreling from Fassbinder to Scorsese to Refn in the blink of an eye, but this is a film primarily about teenagers and what are teenagers if not desperate adopters of poses? And so the faux-“Prince”, Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri), a Dutch Moroccan teen in an Amsterdam housing project, desperate to impress, cycles through poses like the film featuring him.
It opens as a heightened slice-of-life, with documentary-like head-on shots of its principal characters juxtaposed with dreamy synth music. Ayoub is just another aimless adolescent, blowing up mailboxes for no reason, saddled with a depressed mother (Elsie de Brauw) whom his half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale) doesn’t want to be like and a junkie father (Chaib Massaoudi) that Ayoub helps even as he pledges to avoid the same bottomed-out fate. His life gains true purpose, however, when he spies Laura (Sigrid ten Napel.) She’s not just another girl; she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. Alas, she is dating a bully and to win fair maiden’s heart, Ayoub figures he’ll have to transform himself into someone worthy of her affection.
A critical early shot finds Ayoub staring at his own reflection in the window of a purple Lamborghini, the symbol of pre-eminent style, a vehicular version of Driver’s Scorpion jacket. If he can sit behind that wheel, he can become necessarily cool, the sort of trendy top dog to which Laura would be drawn. And that's because being cool, as gangster savant Alien once opined, is all about having shit. Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner) has shit. He’s a one-time geek turned gangster who offers a key to the magical kingdom, dangling a pair of Zanotti kicks in front of Ayoub like brass balls. He can help Ayoub beat up the bullies and hold Laura’s hand. And as Ayoub transforms into an undersized high-roller, the film’s style intensifies, leaving behind its outsized version of reality for something approaching a Eurotrash music video fever dream with this teenager as its star.
“Prince” is like an amplified fairytale, one beset with bursts of violence and foul language. The more ramped up de Jong’s filmmaking becomes, the more detached Ayoub becomes from who he was, threatening to become some variation of his father just like he said he wouldn’t. The film is chock-full of symbolism, from an oft-heard, never-seen thunderstorm heralding Ayoub's brewing crisis of conscious to the incredible over-the-top moment when Ayoub is forced to watch Kalpa slaughter a pig. This is not merely some demented pastime, of course, but an evocation of how the sausage gets made, of what it takes to be the coolest kid on the block. And it doesn’t take Ayoub long to realize he wants to abdicate his natty throne.
For all its effective waxing on the pretense of popularity and absurd machismo, you do wish the film did better by some of its characters, some of which lean too hard on archetypes. Laura is nothing much more than a winsome emblem and there is a whole other ten minutes of the relationship between Ayoub and his half-sister screaming to be explored in a longer movie. Still, overall the film remains successful, and often wrings genuine emotion, like a late film funeral that is an indelibly effective illustration of vanity being set aside in the name of empathy. It’s when the movie makes the turn for home, deliberately ditching its Zanottis for a pair off the discount rack, good guys overthrowing the bad boys, a rejection of empty panache for old fashioned decency.
That's why for all its influences the coming-of-age film it most comes to represent, believe it or not, is “Almost Famous.” In the end, the only true currency in the bankrupt world surrounding Ayoub is what he shares with other characters when they’re uncool.