Review: Princess (Shalom-Ezer, 2014) – MVFF 2015

Still from the movie Princess

Filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer‘s sophomore feature Princess is hands down one of the most compelling films I’ve seen in recent memory. Shira Haas is brilliant as Adar, a feisty and precocious pre-adolescent. Adar regularly skips school, talks back to adults, and tries to smoke, but she enjoys the indulgence of her capricious physician mother Alma (Keren Mor) as well as Alma’s live-in boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer). The opening scene, which shows Alma gently and teasingly waking first Adar for school and then, in the same bed, Michael, establishes the subversive and oftentimes sinister sweetness that pervades the film. They are a seemingly free-spirited threesome, fond and playful. Adar is less daughter than part equal, part mischievous, impish pet. But a sense of unease underlies their easy, borderless affection. Boundaries, after all, have their purpose.

One delinquent afternoon, Adar spots an androgynous-looking boy (Adar Zohar-Hanetz) roughhousing with his friend in the street. Drawn to him partially by his antics and partially by his uncanny resemblance to herself, Adar approaches him. The two smile at each other in wordless recognition and spend the afternoon together, playing and shopping and lounging about. That evening Adar introduces him to her mother and Michael as Alan, a kid whose father is abroad and who has nowhere to stay. With a bit of hesitation, Alma and Michael welcome the boy, and soon he becomes a full-fledged member of the family. But tensions begin to mount as Michael and Adar’s, and then Michael and Alan’s, horseplay and role-playing games grow increasingly intimate.

In Princess, director Shalom-Ezer makes from a well-worn subject a fresh and provocative film. What makes it fresh is that Shalom-Ezer doesn’t take any shortcuts rendering her tale, never falling back on stereotypes and impersonal models to explain her characters’ motivations (in contrast to The Girl in the Book, which addresses a similar topic). She explores the psychology of “inappropriate” relationships without ever using the labels that leave experiences–even traumatic ones–feeling trite. And she does it creatively, too, blurring reality and fantasy as easily as her characters blur the lines between adult and child, permissiveness and neglect, teasing and torment. What makes it provocative is her willingness to take us to uncomfortable places that nonetheless feel, in some awful way, true. Modest viewers, check your scruples at the door.

But Shalom-Ezer’s film would fall flat were it not backed by superb actors who absolutely sell her unusual story and make it feel as real as if we’d lived it ourselves. (Only Zohar-Hanetz is a bit lacking; the casting director was probably limited by the need to pick a Haas lookalike.) Watching these inventive, complicated characters, we are at once enchanted and disturbed (and then, over time, just disturbed). If Alma, Michael, and Adar falter and fail, they do it as individuals. The verisimilitude is achieved through detail–a flick of the eye, a demure smile. We are utterly convinced that their crazy ways are not only possible but plausible; we buy it, wholeheartedly.

And if I were you I would buy a ticket to this film in a heartbeat. Don’t miss Princess‘s final screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival tomorrow, Saturday, October 10th. It’ll show at the Lark Theatre at 8:30 pm.