PRINCESS is an intimately observed film that forces us to face some uncomfortable truths. Told with unflinching honesty, completely eschewing the sensational in favor of the perceptive, we are plunged into a 12-year-old’s waking nightmare lived in a highly sexualized atmosphere created by her mother and her mother’s live-in boyfriend.
The girl is Adar (Shira Haaz), an unusually intelligent, purposely androgynous girl who is nonetheless flunking out of her school for gifted students. Her mother, Alma (Keren Mor), is as puzzled as her teachers by Adar’s lack of motivation, and is more resentful of having to face uncomfortable parent-teacher meetings and of missing work at her hospital job than she is concerned about getting to the root of the problem. There is the moodiness of her coming adolescence, and a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), that is uncomfortable to watch. In point of fact, the home in which Adar is growing up is at best inappropriate, at worst, criminal, with Alma and Michael engaging in steamy clinches in front of Adar, and filling the child’s ears with the sounds of their lovemaking from behind the closed door of their bedroom. There is also the disquieting relationship Adar and Michael have when Alma is at work, less adult and child than that of peers who engage in physical rough-housing and conversations that skirt the line of acceptable, and then, without fanfare, cross it.
The central conceit of the film is Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), a tough and cool boy with a passing resemblance to Adar, an identical haircut, and outfits that always seem to match the girl’s. She meets him on the street, invites him to stay with her, and discovers no resistance when she insists to the adults that he sleep in her bed. Before long, Michael is paying more attention to Alan than he is to Adar, and Adar is struggling with menarche, her feelings of helplessness, and the crushing weight of not being able to tell anyone about what is happening between her and Michael, and the feelings of betrayal that her mother doesn’t already know.
Filmmaker Tali Shalom-Ezer creates a profound sense of unreality about everything except the increasing tension of Michael’s increasingly disturbing behavior with Adar, whom he addresses as “Prince” and treats as a boy. Alan’s reality in the objective sense is unimportant, his presence as a very real (to Adar) buffer, savior, confidant, and witness takes precedence. The sense of danger is heightened by Michael’s very ordinariness, even charm. This is no drooling monster pawing at the girl the minute her mother’s back is turned. No way for Adar to point a finger even as the situation becomes more and more uncomfortable for her for reasons she can’t, or won’t, articulate. It is the gradual change in almost imperceptible increments in the relationship’s nature that is so troubling, that such evil can flourish with no warning until it’s too late. And that when it does transgress, the silence with which it is met. The psychological aspect of this abuse is made manifest for us like the punch in the gut it should be, forcing the visceral realization that while physical injuries may heal, those to the psyche are permanent.
This is a film of heartbreaking pain as innocence is snuffed out forever. Haaz’s performance, at once vulnerable and hardened, is an assured piece of craftsmanship, encompassing confusion, desperation, a need for reassurance, and too wary by what Adar has lived through to accept it in any meaningful way.
PRINCESS is more than just this one specific story. It is by extension an indictment of the highly sexualized pop-culture world in which modern children live and he effect such bombardment has on them. It can’t be a coincidence that the cartoon character on Adar’s bedroom wall is Betty Boop in her short, tight dress and frilly garter belt. As we watch Alma and Michael bump and grind to music in front of Adar, smiling at her and inviting her to join them, we bristle with righteous anger that caretakers would be so willfully ignorant, or willfully unperturbed, by such a display in front of a child. Why, the film asks, don’t we question that same display from every aspect of the media with which that same child is bombarded? By accepting it without question or explanation, what confusion about sexuality and adulthood is being thrown at all children?