Walk up Broadway from 20th to 30th streets in Manhattan and you’ll find a bustling bazaar of low-rent storefront shops hawking an array of consumer goods, some legal, most not. With salesmen haranguing you to come with them and check out their latest deals, it’s not the best spot for a leisurely stroll.
In the portrait the neighborhood offers of the American dream being aggressively pursued, it is, however, a fascinating milieu. Sean Baker, director of the new shoestring budget feature Prince of Broadway, now in limited release, seizes upon the small dramatic moments and intricate details that characterize the daily flow of life centered on this part of town.
In the grand neo-realist tradition of De Sica, Rossellini and Ramin Bahrani, the filmmaker produces a naturalistic, slow-burn rendition of the hassles, heartaches and rewards of the salesman’s hand-to-mouth existence.
The Ghanaian actor Prince Adu makes his feature film debut as Lucky, a hustler paid by Armenian immigrant Levon (Karren Karagulian) to lure passers-by off the streets and into Levon’s slapdash shop, with its counterfeit goods hung in a hidden backroom. Effervescent and hardworking, Lucky gets by dreaming of an education and a better future with girlfriend Karina (Keyali Mayaga). Yet, one day, while on the job, a major hurdle appears in the form of a former flame (Kat Sanchez) and the baby she says he fathered and thrusts upon him.
The movie forswears a standard, artificial narrative arc, with its neatly refined beats and carefully conjoined loose ends. Instead, Baker opts for a closely observed look at the repetitiveness of Lucky’s daily routine, the turmoil of never predicting your next paycheck and the struggle of an unexpected, immature father suddenly faced with an awesome responsibility. The handheld camera immerses the audience in Lucky’s journey, following him through the hive of activity that is his place of employment, also patiently regarding the physical shifts and spatial interplay between father and son that characterize the former’s gradual softening toward the latter.
With a second subplot that depicts Levon’s difficult relationship with his much-younger wife Nadia (Victoria Tate), Baker further fractures the wheeler-and-dealer façade that characterizes both men. The abundant quiet moments speak volumes; the frustration and fear that Adu and Karagulian so ably, naturalistically project cut to the heart of what Prince of Broadway is really about. Get beyond the bluster, the posturing and the frenzied drive to make a few bucks and what remains are two men, eking out livings and seeking human connections in a big, lonely city.
The Upside: The movie is a compelling, surprisingly moving portrait of two men struggling to survive in a hostile, imposing environment.
The Downside: Some of the details of Levon’s story somewhat stretch credibility.
On the Side: The movie is currently playing in New York City. If it opens near you, seek it out. Otherwise, make sure you remember to look for the DVD, because the film is among the year’s best so far.