Life is hardly a fairy tale for even the most fortunate among us.
Alisha is far from the most fortunate among us.
She’s the 12-year-old at the heart of Princess of the Row, a heart-tugging drama that sometimes tugs too hard.
Memorably embodied by young Tayler Buck, Alisha — who prefers to be called “Princess” — spends as much time as possible with the person who gave her the nickname.
That would be her father, Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Edi Gathegi), whose current tour of duty finds him pinned down on a most precarious battlefield: Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Technically, Princess doesn’t live in her father’s tent. She’s in the foster care system, where her empathic social worker (Ana Ortiz) keeps trying to find a suitable place for the bright, creative girl.
Princess is a budding writer who’s won awards for stories populated by princesses and unicorns.
But not even a chance to live with a published author (Martin Sheen) and his wife (Jenny Gago) can keep Princess from running away — and back to Skid Row — to look after her embattled dad.
Most of the time, he’s far away — at least in his injured brain. Staring into space, swatting away imaginary flies, he follows wherever his resourceful Princess leads. Every now and then, though, a moment of lucidity breaks through.
“I love it when you come back to me,” Princess says when he does.
Alas, it doesn’t happen often enough. Usually, something sets Sgt. Willis off, triggering violent episodes that leave others — even Princess herself — in undeniable peril.
Featured at multiple (pre-pandemic) film festivals, Princess of the Row generates its greatest emotional impact through its lead performances.
Buck shows impressive range, shifting seamlessly from street-smart toughness to touching naivete. And Gathegi transcends his role’s outward mannerisms to subtly convey his character’s love for his daughter — and the anguished knowledge that his presence can only hurt her, even more than he’s been hurt himself.
If only Princess of the Row had confined itself to their tender, tenacious bond.
But director Van Maximilian Carlson and co-writer A. Shawn Austin just can’t resist weighing down the delicate emotions with a host of hoary street-life cliches.
Similarly, the movie’s compare-and-contrast visuals — which vacillate between Princess’ fanciful storybook imagination and the all-too-painful realities of her life — drive home the obvious dichotomies with in-your-face excess.