Film Festival Movie Review

Film Review: PRINCESS: Unsettling, Captivating Film Opens Eyes [SFF 2015]

Shira Haas Ori Pfeffer Princess

Princess (2014Film Review from the 37th Annual Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Tali Shalom-Ezer, starring Keren MorShira HaasOri Pfeffer, and Adar Zohar Hanetz.

Sexual abuse and the exploitation of minors seems to be one of the more resounding themes of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and this film fits right into that category.

Hailing from first-time Israeli director Tali Shalom Ezer, Princess tells the story of twelve-year-old Adar (Shira Haas), a girl living with her mother, Alma (Keren Mor), and stepfather, Michael (Ori Pfeffer). A former school teacher, Michael is unemployed and decidedly not looking for work; Adar often skips class at her school for gifted children and spends her time at home with Michael. But what starts out as innocent play between stepfather and daughter soon turns into something more insidious and Adar must find a way to cope as she processes what is happening to her in her own home.

Audiences were clearly apprehensive of this film as evidenced by the lean attendance at the film’s Salt Lake City screening, but that is to their detriment.

The film tackles the subject of familial child sexual abuse in an unbelievably respectful and tasteful way. It does not dilute the horror of Michael’s actions, nor does it rationalize or justify them; rather, the horror of what Adar is experiencing as a victim is conveyed in ways that are unsettling without being overly-provocative or explicit. For example, when Adar returns home from a parent-teacher conference with her mother, Michael greets her with an unnerving, “I’ve been thinking about you all day.” The result is an audience that knows something isn’t quite right without having to see it literally laid out before its eyes.

This is all to the credit of the director and screenwriter, who displayed quite a genuine sense of sympathy and respect for the subject matter in a post-screening Q&A. Her adeptness for exploring the subject matter without ignoring it completely is evident. The narrative never rings a false bell, and the reactions of each character to the abuse are believable. (In fact, a local child psychologist present for the screening commented afterward during the Q&A that he has never before seen a more accurate portrayal of the subject matter).

The surprisingly soulful performance of Shira Haas (a then-seventeen-year-old playing a twelve-year-old), aided by her piercing gaze, sets up a foundation by which the audience views right and wrong. The audience becomes a child and starts to think like a child, to see the world through a child’s eyes. When she begins her period and feels misunderstood and embarrassed, we ache for her. When she invents Alan (Adar Zohar Hanetz) as a way to cope with the abuse, we understand her desire to dissociate and escape her reality, for a moment or long stretches of time. The audience doesn’t understand, just as Adar doesn’t, Alma’s complacency, cold detachment, and even jealousy of her daughter. When Adar confides to her mother that Michael has been drawing her in the nude, for example, her mother violently slaps her.

“What is it going to take for this little girl to be heard and protected by those in her own family?” the audience wonders.

The dreamlike atmosphere contributes to this feeling of uneasiness; the drifting music infused with a soft lighting renders quite palatable a picture we would rather look away from otherwise. The audience ventures down a rabbit hole, of sorts, in which everything down is up and vice-versa. In a way, the audience does just what Adar does: distracts itself in order to face the reality of something so unthinkable that even Adar’s own mother doesn’t dare face it. (In fact, when asked if she wants to see the most horrible thing in the world, Alma ignores her daughter, shuts her eyes, and goes back to sleep).

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but facing the truth with open eyes and open ears is one of the bravest things a person can do. Venture down the rabbit hole. Find a way to see this film.

Princess is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition and has yet to be acquired for distribution. 

Rating: 7/10

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Image Source: Sundance Institute

 

About the author

Drew Stelter

Drew is a 26-year-old film buff. A native Utahan, he attends the Sundance Film Festival annually. He is a member of the Salt Lake Film Society. In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he attended the Oscars Red Carpet on March 2, 2014, after winning an essay contest through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. At any given time he can be expected to be conversing via movie quote GIFs.

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