One of the true gems of the 2019 ReelAbilities Pittsburgh Film Festival, Max Carlson's Princess of the Row features a tour-de-force performance by young Tayler Buck as 12-year-old Alicia Willis (Annabelle: Creation, Clarence).
Princess of the Row, directed by Max Carlson based upon a script by Carlson and A. Shawn Austin, is a story told through the voice of 12-year-old Alicia, a young girl whose unbreakable bond with her formerly doting now PTSD-riddled war vet father Bo (Edi Gathegi) has been only circumstantially disrupted by her father's continuing challenges.
Princess of the Row tackles a lot of themes - PTSD, homelessness, foster care, the VA system, mental illness and more - yet, somehow, the film never seems to lose its way or its complete and utter magic. Princess of the Row has been on a well-deserved awards tear as of later including prizes at Cleveland International Film Festival (Best American Independent Feature Film), Ashland Independent Film Festival (Audience Award, Narrative Feature), Atlanta's BronzeLens Film Festival (Best Feature, Best Actress (Buck), and Best Actor (Gathegi), Florida Film Festival (Outstanding Performance - Female (Buck), Las Vegas International Film & Screenwriting Competition (Best Actor (Gathegi), Best Film, Best Drama), Manchester International Film Festival (Best Actress - Buck), Method Fest (Best Actress, Buck; Audience Award, Feature FIlm; Breakout Acting Award, Feature (Gathegi), and Columbus International Film & Video Festival (Presidential Award) among a growing list that is sure to continue to grow.
Princess of the Row soars on the strength of the relationship portrayed between Alicia and Bo, a relationship that is majestic to watch and stunning in its warmth, intimacy, and honesty. Both performers are simply exceptional here, Tayler Buck magnificently capturing the realism yet wide-eyed wonder of a young girl who keeps returning to her father no matter how harrowing or difficult his circumstances. While this could have been portrayed in a schmaltzy, saccharine way, Buck brings it to life in a way that feels honest and true and heart-swelling and just about every other superlative you can possibly think of to describe.
As Bo, Edi Gathegi (X-Men: First Class, Gone Baby Gone) tenderly captures the internalized intimacy of a father whose love for his daughter never wavers even as his PTSD envelopes him and his environment seemingly betrays him. There's seemingly little that Bo can control about his life, but the one thing that can't be taken away from him is his love for his daughter and watching him bring that to life is simply, marvelously, and somewhat miraculously amazing.
The script by Carlson and Austin does a wonderful job of balancing the authenticity of L.A.'s skid row area with the otherworldly scenes in which father and daughter are united by immense love, childhood fairy tales, and an escape that seems both impossible yet inevitable. Maz Makhani's lensing for the film captures the gritty nature of skid row, yet also is relentless in its humanizing of these people who live there and their circumstances. Makhani also immerses us in the home that exists between Bo and Alicia, a home that transcends reality and even the tangible world. Somehow, Makhani makes everything come to life.
Among the supporting players, Martin Sheen shines as a man who has devoted 20 years of his life to running a foster home. While it's a relatively brief appearance, it's a reminder of just how much depth Sheen brings to even his smallest roles. As a determined social with a protective eye on Alicia, Ana Ortiz humanizes a character who is all too often seen as a caricature in this type of film.
Both Ortiz and Sheen do exceptional work here.
Julian Scherle's original score for Princess of the Row bathes the film in realism meets fantasy, capturing all the right moments of grit and wonder, truth and love.
It is rare in cinema that a film so beautifully balances stark realism with unabashed hopefulness, yet such is the case with Princess of the Row, a little miracle of a film that soars on the strength of its co-leading performances and wraps you in its loving arms. Carlson weaves together a mighty wonderful tapestry of words and visuals, performances and stellar technical achievements. Princess of the Row is a film you will not forget and you will most certainly want to see again and again.
For more information on Princess of the Row, visit the film's official Facebook page linked to in the credits. For information on ReelAbilities Pittsburgh, visit the ReelAbilties Pittsburgh website.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic