"Prince of Broadway" thinks outside the box. It's an undeniably small yet almost indefinable film, warmhearted and bittersweet, laced with both humor and tough emotions. Plus it has a kind of bicoastal appeal.
Though it won the grand jury prize at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival and was a nominee for the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards' John Cassavetes nod, "Prince" owes a lot of its allure to its very New York situation and state of mind.
As directed by Sean Baker, "Prince" greatly benefits from its gritty cinéma-vérité setting on the edges of Manhattan's wholesale fashion district, a place where street-level clothing hustlers try to make a few dollars on the far side of the law.
"Prince's" script is credited to Baker and Darren Dean, but an on-screen message tells us that the dialogue "was realized through improvisation and a collaborative process with all actors."
What that means in practice is that the film's uncensored individuals speak with the unmistakable tang of authenticity, giving us dialogue that perfectly captures the spirit and intimacy of urban street profanity.
As with Baker's previous work, "Take Out," set in the world of immigrants who deliver food for New York's ubiquitous Chinese restaurants, "Prince" takes us to places that most films, including independents, don't have the gumption to venture and introduces us to life as it is lived there.
Though its title turns out to have several reference points, it originally applies to Lucky, an African-born clothing hustler (played by Prince Adu, who is similarly employed in real life) who works near Lower Manhattan's Flatiron Building.
A self-described "salesman with a degree from the School of Broadway," Lucky has full command of the talk of the trade. "Don't be scared, beautiful, I don't bite," he says to the women who pass by. "See what I got. Everything you need, I got it all: Coach, Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton."
When potential customers succumb, as they often do, Lucky takes them to the back room of a store run by his boss, Levon (Karren Karagulian), where knock-off merchandise is sold at cut-rate prices. It's not a glamorous life, but Lucky is doing fine and is content.
Then, out of nowhere, a former girlfriend named Linda (Kat Sanchez) appears and thrusts an 18-month-old into Lucky's arms. "Be a responsible father," she says as she literally walks away. "That's your son, and I need you to stay with him for a couple of weeks."
Astonishment is a mild word for the way Lucky, who is not at all convinced that he is indeed the father of a child who looks nothing like him, feels at this turn of events.
Flummoxed, flabbergasted, completely at sea when it comes to dealing with children — "You don't touch my stuff," he tells the uncomprehending toddler when he brings him home — Lucky strives to make the best out of a situation that completely deranges his work, his girlfriend Karina (Keyali Mayaga) and every aspect of his life.
Aside from the completely natural performance by Adu, "Prince of Broadway" succeeds as well as it does because of how easily Aiden Noesi, who plays the toddler, takes to the screen. The real-life son of actress Sanchez, young Aiden is a remarkably self-possessed and unflappable little person with a serene face we never get tired of.
Though it's to be expected that one of the themes of "Prince of Broadway" is the tenacity of the American dream, this film also investigates the unexpected, and not always welcome, ways that kids transform lives. When Linda shows no sign of wanting her son back, Lucky has to decide who is lucky after all and what it really means to be the Prince of Broadway.