Writer/director Sean Baker's exceptional first feature, Take Out, is the kind of film that engages your curiosity in a rather distracting way; you feel as if you're watching a lost home video or a guerrilla-style student film. Scenes are unpredictable not necessarily because of complex plot twists (the story could not be simpler), but because at any given moment something in the vicinity of the shooting location, perhaps a stray animal or a loud car, seems certain to interrupt filming.
Was there a proper set? Were these people even actors? The answer was yes, and no, but if you focused on the production details you'd potentially miss the most important fact of all: Take Out is a brilliant illustration of "a day in the life", of the common experiences of fear, frustration, relief, longing, hope, and countless other emotions that we as humans individually experience but collectively share. (See that film.)
Baker's new film, Prince of Broadway (opening tomorrow in New York and Sep. 24 in L.A.), is a glossier product, longer and more confidently made than Take Out. The sound and cinematography are vastly improved, if not still bound by the limits of a tiny budget, and the blocking is more tightly staged. In short, it's a more professional film, but if Baker has applied more of a sheen to this new product he has lost nothing under the surface, where thoughtful lessons about love, parenting, marriage, and friendship are framed by the unlikeliest of set-ups.
Lucky (newcomer Prince Adu) is an undocumented Ghanian immigrant who makes his living in New York's Garment District. He is a hustler by trade, baiting curious tourists to follow him into the back room of a nearby storefront to purchase counterfeit goods, such as knock-off Prada handbags and Nike shoes. Lucky works for Levon, an Armenian from Lebanon who operates the illegimate storefront and acquires new inventories of the the products. The two men are amicable partners who probably share more life experiences than they realize, but their relationship is primarily based on the mutual trust that the other won't misstep and draw the attention of the ever-hovering NYPD.
One day an ex-girlfriend of Lucky literally drops a toddler in his arms (she insists it's his child, he denies it), leaving him a single dad in a very precarious situation. He has a new girlfriend but she is hesitant to get involved, and while Levon is understanding about Lucky's dilemma, his own life is in turmoil as his marriage to a young American woman is falling apart at the seams. The two men are helpless and alone, but together they press on with their illegitimate work, knowing it's the only stable thing in their lives.
This isn't where you'd expect a typical story about parenthood, marriage, and heartbreak to be based, but Baker's talent is in deftly extracting those universals of culture out of seemingly any situation, allowing the true life experiences of the actors to inform the motives of, and challenges faced by, their on-screen characters. We relate to these characters because it's easy to see that they are authentically, organically produced by the people playing them. As I said in my review of Take Out, in this way Baker is following admirably in the footsteps of Ramin Bahrani, the current auteur of neorealism.
But Baker's films are a little grittier, a little louder, and generally just more urgent (the buzz of New York City in both films plays a large role). Also, Baker's actors command more of a screen presence than Bahrani's, with the possible exception of Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo. That Prince Adu is playing a similar character to Savane in Prince of Broadway is entirely a coincidence, but maybe there is a connection to be found in the fact that both characters (and, formerly, both actors) are African immigrants working low-wage jobs.
It's no secret that I enjoy unflinching films about immigration, class, and culture, and in particular those that portray issues in a believable way. But a number of films misfire in their attempts to portray authenticity (e.g., Babel, Under the Same Moon) - one could call them counterfeits, to use an analogy related to Prince of Broadway. They look real and they bear all the right brand names (actors), but something is off that you can't exactly identify. You have a feeling of certainty while watching Baker's films, however, that they are the genuine article - worth the price of admission and then some. I've bought my share of counterfeits over the years*, but when films like Baker's are made available I'll happily pay for the real thing.
Prince of Broadway opens in New York this Friday, Sept. 3
[*While watching this movie I was reminded of a number of trips I took to New York City throughout college, during which I would buy knock-off luxury watches in Chinatown. For a couple of years I bought Rolex and Tag Heuer watches, then Movado or Cartier (I still have three of these watches on my dresser; one needs a new battery). Often I'd have to talk in a kind of code to the sellers, who would talk to each other on walkie-talkies and move me around the block if they were nervous about the cops (funny I should have been just as nervous as the buyer, but you can play dumb as a tourist - as seen in Prince of Broadway).
So over the years I bought a lot of fake watches that looked real - real enough that I would proudly wear them without worrying that anyone would identify them as counterfeit. Why I cared about such a thing is a complete mystery, as no other part of my wardrobe is or has ever been a high fashion name brand. A Rolex on my wrist is like a set of Pirelli tires on a '92 Corolla. Anyway, for a short time at the end of college I was working for the New England Patriots. Professional football players obviously have money to spend on extravagances like jewelry, and one player immediately spotted my Rolex as a fake. How did he know? The second hand ticked, and in a real Rolex it should have swept.
I didn't buy any fake Rolex watches after that.]