It Takes a Muscle: De Jong’s Debut a Vibrant Entry in Familiar Genre
So perhaps there is a room for a bit of inventiveness in the continual exploration of the bildungsroman, at least evidenced by Dutch director Sam de Jong’s directorial debut Prince. Heavily stylized with flourishes of impressive editing and an energetic soundtrack fluctuating between hypnotic electro beats, crooning vintage tracks, and a synthesized menace promising more detrimental events than the film actually delivers, this exploration of life in Amsterdam’s low income housing projects recalls the influences of works by Refn and Antonio Campos, at least as far its power for brooding male leads struggling through an increasingly apathetic universe. Ultimately, de Jong proves to be less interested in the provocations his tone would otherwise indicate, surprisingly crafting a sweet natured portrait of conflicted adolescence.
17 year old Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri) lives with his lonely single Dutch mother (Elsie de Brauw) and half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale) in an Amsterdam housing project. His Moroccan father (Chiab Massaoudi) is a homeless junkie who Ayoub sneaks out to see as often as he can, though his heritage is cause for bigoted behavior from the older white kids in the neighborhood, including his best friend Franky’s (Peter Douma) older brother Ronnie (Jorik Scholten). But Ayoub has set his sights on Ronnie’s blonde girlfriend Laura (Sigrid ten Napel), and believes the only way to get her attention is to become a street wise tough guy, which places him in the orbit of local dealer Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner), a man with a dangerous reputation.
De Jong does an impressive job of threading the underlying racial tensions clouding Ayoub’s existence, his mixed race ancestry a nagging reminder thanks to peripheral character’s attitudes. Newcomer Ayoub Elasri is competently scrappy in the lead, managing the difficult and often awkward balance of an adolescent’s rapid fluctuations between sweet natured and troubling moments.
De Jong and DoP Paul Ozgur deliver a portrait of Amsterdam we’ve not quite seen before, basically constructing a series of montages set to a handful of tracks meant to stir the seething emotions of these characters. This is perhaps best attained with its repetitive use of Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love,” following nearly every entrance of Ayoub’s lonely hearted mother, who seems to be blasting it on repeat to fill the void left behind by the absence of a significant other (not unlike a similarly melancholy track used for the William H. Macy character upon each appearance in P.T. Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia). The effect reaches a haunting, but desperate plateau, and primes Prince for several tender moments between mother and son. But more often than not, the film sometimes feels like a spliced montage of delectable electronic musical tracks from Palmbomen, the stage name for Dutch musician Kai Hugo, an artist who seems to have the 80s vibe down pat.
Quirky without being too entirely grating, Prince eventually feels like something we’ve seen before, only relayed with great panache and without the sickly hollow feelings of inauthenticity we’ve grown accustomed to in coming-of-age tales. Still, De Jong seems unable to avoid several clichés, like Ayoub’s eventual dream come true, which may as well have been set to something like “Teenage Dirtbag.” But, as indicated by its title, and the eventual presence of a cardboard crown, the kingdom that awaits him, replete with the specter of local drug dealer Kalpa’s purple chariot, are only the fumes of teenage fantasy.