Monday, October 17, 2011

DVD Review | "Prince of Broadway"

NOTE: This is a repost of my original review that was published on August 31, 2010, with an added postscript about the DVD release.

"It's a hard knock-off life" proclaims the advertising materials for Sean Baker's Prince of Broadway. And despite the obvious, admittedly goofy nod to the famous Broadway play, Annie, Prince of Broadway has absolutely nothing to do with musical theatre. Nor does it include any trace of the pun-y humor its tagline suggests.

No, Prince of Broadway is a raw, organic slice of neo-realism that seems as if it born naturally from real life, captured on camera as it happens by director Sean Baker (Take-Out). Not unlike Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) or even Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Baker has an unblinking eye for stark realism, painting a picture of New York from the street level that is at once vibrantly alive and sharply honest.

It is the story of two immigrants - Lucky (Prince Adu), an illegal immigrant from Ghana who makes money by hustling unsuspecting tourists on the streets with knock-off designer merchandise, and Levon (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian from Lebanon who runs the business Lucky works for. Levon maintains the false storefront while Lucky sells the illegal merchandise out of the hidden back room. Everything seems to be on an even keel, even if Lucky is barely scraping by while Levon lives in relative luxury. But their world is upset when Lucky's ex-girlfriend arrives with a baby (Aiden Noesi) she claims is his, and forces the baby on him while she goes away for two weeks.

Not even sure if the baby is his, and unable to go to the police because of his immigration status, Lucky has no choice but to take care of it, integrating it into every part of his life. He doesn't even know it's name, so he dubs it Prince. Suddenly Prince is with him everywhere he goes, hustling on the streets, while Lucky tries to deal with the repercussions of his new found fatherhood. To top it all off, Levon suddenly finds himself mired in a divorce from a woman he married in order to obtain US citizenship. It seems as if their lives are falling apart around them, but the introduction of Prince into both of their lives is about to change everything.

Baker deftly sidesteps any maudlin sentimentalism that could have sprung from his narrative, and instead places the film in the hands of his capable cast, who improvised most of the dialogue. Prince Adu gives an absolutely extraordinary performance as Lucky that is the very definition of awards-worthy, even though the film (which was nominated for the John Cassavetes award at last years Independent Spirit Awards) is likely too small to garner any real heat. It is a stunningly naturalistic evocation of a man just trying to get by on the mean streets of New York, and has come to the end of his rope after having the responsibilities of fatherhood suddenly thrust upon him. Baker wisely guides the narrative through tricky thematic waters and emerges triumphant with a powerfully understated tale of love and redemption, as Lucky learns what it really means to be a father.

Prince of Broadway never pushes its themes or states them in a grand way, it simply lets its story flow, content to observe its characters and let their story naturally unfold. It feels unflinchingly real, and never anything less than deeply felt. This is the real deal - an honest to goodness, bona fide work of art. It is the independent film every independent film wants to be. Baker says a lot in the lively undercurrents of these characters' lives, masterfully evoking the pulsating rhythms of the streets of New York. He is a filmmaker who clearly "gets it," an in his steady and assured hands Prince of Broadway becomes something thrilling and vivacious, a microcosm of New York teeming with life, as well as a portrait of the immigrant experience that is both timely and moving. These streets may not be paved with gold, but Baker's filmmaking is nothing short of golden, and his remarkable Prince of Broadway shines.

DVD addendum: True to its low budget origins, the Prince of Broadway DVD is predictably bare-bones. There's nothing particularly remarkable here outside of a commentary by Sean Baker, producer Darren Dean, and two of the film's stars, Karren Karagulian and Victoria Tate, and a behind the scenes featurette called "Meet the Hustlers." The hour long featurette, however, is surprisingly comprehensive, and while the voice of Prince Adu is sorely missing, it covers a lot of ground, from the film's conception to its construction. As minimalist and sparse as the feature film that inspired it, "Meet the Hustlers" nevertheless provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at low-budget, almost guerrilla style filmmaking (I especially loved the anecdote about the first time Adu met 18 month old Aiden Noesi, who immediately bonded with him). Baker is as enthusiastic in front of the camera as he is behind it, and it's interesting to hear him talk about something he clearly cares a lot about. Even with such a sparse presentation, it's worth buying just to support such strong independent filmmaking that is truly independent in every sense of the word. It's one of last year's hidden gems. Don't miss it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PRINCE OF BROADWAY; Directed by Sean Baker; Stars Prince Adu, Karren Karagulian, Aiden Noesi, Keyali Mayaga, Kat Sanchez, Victoria Tate; Not Rated; On DVD Tuesday, October 18.

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