Princess Reveals the Most Terrible Thing Through a Most Beautiful Lens
Twelve year-old Adar (Shira Haas) lives with her mom, Alma (Keren Mor), and while her father left some time ago her mom’s boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer) has become a permanent part of their lives. He’s unemployed and spends his days at home, and over time he and Adar have developed a routine of playful role-playing where they take on personas and pretend to fight. He only refers to her as a he, his prince, but shortly after Adar gets her first period the game takes a darker turn. Michael crosses a devastating line, and the next day Adar’s aimless wandering brings her in contact with a boy named Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz) who bears a striking resemblance to her. Their silent introduction consists of mirrored movements and shared smiles, and when she brings him home to stay a few days her mom and Michael tentatively approve unaware of how his presence will affect them all.
Films about child abuse can’t (and shouldn’t) approach the devastation of the real thing, but that doesn’t make them any easier to watch. Writer/director Tali Shalom-Ezer’s second feature, Princess, is a haunting and harrowing walk along the blurred line between the real world and the imagined one, and while it features a couple scenes guaranteed to pause your breath it presents this particular nightmare with fantastic beauty.
The film opens with a tender moment between Adar and her mom, but the relationship is tested as the girl’s interactions with Michael grow and shift. Watching them roll around together, Alma’s own insecurities edge out her motherly affections and she starts snapping at her daughter as if she’s to blame for Michael’s amorphous attention. It leaves Adar without the ally she needs, and the result is the arrival of Alan.
We see Michael’s gaze fall on both Adar and Alan, and both spend time with him, but it’s the kids’ time together that shows Adar’s attempts to process Michael’s transgressions. The two pre-teens do some role-playing of their own, mimicking adult lovemaking while clothed with exaggerated body movements including thrusts, varied positions and groans of pleasure. It’s an exploration of one’s own sexuality as Adar comes of age in a tumultuous situation, but the otherwise innocent nature of it all falls under the shadow of her much darker reality that quickly requires more from Alan.
Shalom-Ezer crafts a beautiful exploration of a horrific scenario, and while there’s an unease weaving its way through the entire film two scenes in particular take hold of your heart and lungs with equally powerful pressure. One is presented via an unwavering shot that forces viewers into an uncomfortable reality, while the other occurs in an altered state that in no way diminishes its impact. “Do you want to see the most terrible thing in the world,” Adar asks of her sleeping mother, and it’s an emotionally shattering moment. Both scenes leave viewers helpless to look away or intervene, and their impact is unavoidable.
The film offers no hand-holding when it comes to Alan’s presence or actions – I’m being intentionally vague in discussing it – and viewers are tasked with connecting tenuous dots involving characters, interactions and meaning. Is that a bad thing? Could the film have done a “better” job of providing answers and explanations? Maybe, but it’s not a failing of the film. Similarly, one other potential criticism is rooted in our own mental training when it comes to films. Certain behaviors and events dictate certain responses and closure, but while the film finds a satisfying dramatic end it’s far from the one many viewers will want and possibly need.
Princess is a difficult watch with subject matter destined to scare away potential viewers, but it handles this delicate topic with grace and power. It’s less graphic than it is aggressively suggestive and never suggests it has answers for the shocking issues it explores. It’s as far from a revenge tale as it is from misery porn, existing instead in a world of its own creation – it’s a harsh world, but it’s one where hope and courage still exist, so maybe it isn’t that far from our own after all.
The Upside: Powerful performances and images; haunting and harrowing; beautiful blend of imagination and reality
The Downside: Refuses to do the heavy lifting for viewers (this isn’t actually a negative, but it is guaranteed to leave some viewers flustered and lost); ending may leave some wanting one thing more
On the Side: Adar Zohar-Hanetz had never acted before this, and he was cast after Tali Shalom-Ezer passed him in the street and insisted he take the role.
Related Topics: Sundance