It looks like we are now in pre-Oscar season. Most heavy drama’s searching for the golden prize tend to tackle very touchy Oscar-baity subjects (slavery and The Holocaust are the usual), but seldom do many movies try to tackle the subject of homelessness, war veterans, and mental illness. For one, the Iraq War was a little unpopular, and whenever a drama film is made surrounding that subject it isn’t well received. Secondly, for some reason, homelessness is still a weird taboo that isn’t tackled much in pop culture. It’s still our collective dirty secret that we would rather continue to sweep under a rug. However, there are more than 150,000 homeless people in the United States, with more than 10,000 of them being veterans, so it’s a pretty big deal for the richest country in the world to have this problem. That said, Princess of the Row is an exceptional film that shines a light on the subject in the most humane way possible.
Directed by Max Carlson (Bhopali), Princess of the Row focuses on young Alicia (Taylor Buck), a young 12-year old aspiring writer who bounces from foster home to foster home as she continues to run away from them to spend her time in Los Angeles’ Skid Row to take care of her homeless PTSD-laden Iraq War vet father Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Edi Gathegi) whose mind is gone after suffering a traumatic brain injury during the war. However, he’s still her daddy and her hero and she is still his “Princess.” They spend most of their time in Tent City as Bo simply cannot take being in a homeless shelter as he gets triggered rather quickly. As she takes care of him, she continues to evade and reject any type of help, including from passionate social worker Magdalene (Ana Ortiz), well-meaning foster parents (Martin Sheen and Jenny Gago), her aunt Tammy whose patience is wearing out (Tabitha Brown), and a not so well-meaning “social worker” Donald (Jacob Vargas) as they try to get her off the streets, but her dedication to her father is too strong that she’s willing to sacrifice herself to keep him safe.
While Alicia has to deal with a very all too real world: taking care of a broken, delusional, and sometimes violent father (he still has a strong and explosive muscle memory), she also has hopes and dreams that she channels into her own personal narrative. In her dreams, she’s taking care of a big beautiful black unicorn, that basically is how she sees her father. As she writes down her dreams, it’s revealed that she has a great gift with the pen. This catches the eyes of potential foster parent John (Sheen), who is a writer himself. While John and his wife have been taking care of children, John has his own fears of raising a young girl which prove to be powerful when revealed. At first, it seems like John’s interest in her might strictly be professional as he just wants to groom another writer, but Martin Sheen proves once again why he’s such a great actor and displays a soothing compassion for her, even when she continuously rejects him and his wife. The same cannot be said for “social worker” Donald, who is not what he appears to be and tries to prey on Laic’s desperation and vulnerabilities to try and lead her into a different type of lifestyle. There is an incredibly traumatic scene involving an attempted rape of Alicia that is beyond tense that goes to display the dark side of young women who end up homeless and what they are forced to endure in order to survive. Ultimately, the tirelessness of social worker Magdalene is what ends up being Alicia’s salvation and allows her to finally grow, deal with the reality of her father, and learn to let go.
Max Carson’s previous work has been mostly short film and documentaries, but with Princess of the Row, he really gets to flex his muscles. The film while having a documentary feel to it, is incredibly raw and authentic. The music of the film also sets a great tone throughout the film as the soundtrack is great. Princess of the Row really shines a light on homelessness, how people treat them and assault them, how bureaucracies fail them as the VA is too overburdened to really help soldiers who come home with substantial problems, and how they can be abused by the dark side of society.
Emotion is properly displayed well in this film, and every actor really does an outstanding job in the film. Sheen and Rodriguez really do a great job as people eager to help and Vargas displays the right amount of deceitful and cunning evil that makes him very trustworthy at first and then turns into the guy you absolutely hate. While we may recognize Edi Gathegi from such films as Twilight and X-Men: First Class and on television shows like The Blacklist and Briarpatch, he really steps his game up in Princess of the Row. Through flashbacks, we see him as a loving father and understand how easy it is for young Alicia to worship him as her father, but in the present, he’s desperately broken, and Gathegi absolutely shines as a broken man whose mind has snapped. Sometimes he’s lucid, but most of the time he’s drifting in between reality and could snap at any moment. He really does a great job and if this wasn’t a Covid world, we could possibly be talking about Best Supporting Actor nominations at minimum. But the true star of the film is Taylor Buck. She’s had some roles on television and was in Annabelle: Creation, but in Princess of the Row, she is a bonafide star. The film lives and dies on her performance. By the end of the film, she brings you to tears. She absolutely should also have some awards consideration for a Best Actress despite her young age. Having a child play such a meaty role is rather difficult, but Buck really shines as she carries the whole film from start to finish.
Princess of the Row is incredibly powerful, authentic, heavy, and really does an outstanding job displaying a very serious situation by showcasing with laser focus a story of a young girl and her dedication to helping to save her father.
Princess of the Row is currently available on VOD.