Filmmaker Sean Baker remains best known for his crazy/funny cult TV series Greg the Bunny but his storytelling skills shine brightest in his feature-length films. Prince of Broadway, Baker's latest feature and his second drama about illegal immigrants in New York, is a gem of vŽritŽ-inspired moviemaking with amateur leads, great use of New York locales and a heart-tugging story both grim and uplifting. Prince of Broadway has steadily built positive word of mouth since playing film festivals in Woodstock and Los Angeles as far back as 2008. Slated for a September release by New York-based specialty distributor Elephant Eye Films, Prince of Broadway will benefit from an enthusiastic debut weekend response from its hometown audience; Precious director Lee Daniels supporting the film as a "special presenter" will also attract extra attention to the film. Robust opening weekend grosses and glowing critical reviews will help Elephant Eyes expand the film to additional cities. While its overall box office will reflect its limited play dates, specialty audiences who seek out discoveries will find a goldmine of new talent in the rich and satisfying Prince of Broadway.
Lucky (Prince Adu) is an illegal from Ghana who makes a living selling knock-off merchandise. His boss is Levon (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian-Lebanese immigrant who imports counterfeit handbags, sneakers and other illegal goods and displays them for sale in a showroom hidden behind his modest storefront in Manhattan's West 20s. Lucky is happy with his slice of the American dream, until a woman he briefly dated (Kat Sanchez) dumps a young toddler in his lap and tells Lucky he's the father. Forced to care for a toddler (Aiden Noesi) who may or may not be his son, Lucky sees his carefree lifestyle and means for making a living slipping away.
Baker is the true vertical filmmaker completing many of the technical tasks for Prince of Broadway on his own; he's cameraman and screenwriter, editor and director. Basically, Baker is behind all the key decisions on this independent film.
The natural lighting and handheld camerawork occasionally prove to be a hindrance to the story. Most of the time, the raw camerawork and shoestring production values sync perfectly with the characters and locales of Baker's coming-to-America story. When Baker positions his camera just right, and the evening light is at its most beautiful, Baker can claim some stunning images; especially a scene late in the film when Prince is left alone at a restaurant staring out the large window looking for Lucky. Better yet, Baker and production designer Stephonik Youth capture the Flatiron building in all its beauty and makes the landmark building a beacon of hope for better times.
Ghanaian actor Prince Adu brings Lucky to life with all his salesman charms and carefree demeanor intact. Armenian actor Karren Karagulian provides strong support as Levon, a man every bit as complicated as Lucky. Levon may be a tough black market businessman but he shows a kindness and concern for his worker, Lucky, when the toddler Prince is tossed into his lap. Karagulian also shines in his spotlight scenes as Levon fights to keep his young American bride (clearly they married as a business arrangement over a green card). Karagulian, working with Baker for the third time, takes Levon, an ordinarily clichŽ character, and makes the counterfeit importer as complex and fascinating as the film around him.
Prince of Broadway is close in spirit to Take Out, a grim drama Baker co-directed about an illegal Chinese deliveryman who has one day to raise $800 to pay the "snakehead" who smuggled him to New York. Co-writing Prince of Broadway with Darren Dean, Baker shows himself to be skilled at stories involving everyday people, capable of finding the beauty in disadvantaged neighborhoods and offering hope even when the situations seem grim. His stories are truly humanistic and that's a rare thing.
Baker is also one of four filmmakers directing a segment of A Contract With God, an anthology based on the 1978 graphic novel by the late cartoonist Will Eisner. All four stories are set in a Bronx tenement in the 1930s, which sounds perfect for a storyteller like Baker.
Until that film sees the light of day, Prince of Broadway will slowly platform to various cities and prove that a director known for surreal comedy featuring crazed puppets can also create heartfelt stories about the American dream.
Distributor: Elephant Eye Films
Cast: Prince Adu, Karren Karagulian, Aiden Noesi, Kat Sanchez and Keyali Mayaga
Director: Sean Baker
Screenplay: Sean Baker and Darren Dean
Producer: Darren Dean
Running time: 100 min
Release date: Sept. 3 NY and Sept. 17 L.A.