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Prince Reigns in Woodstock

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Woodstock this year isn't the upstate whirlwind The Reeler experienced as a rookie in 2007, when a mid-Friday arrival gave way to a panel/screening marathon that remains one of my great festivalgoing experiences. This time around brings a 36-hour sojourn, all back roads and bad cell reception, perfectly fine in every way but the one that allows for revelation. It's over before it begins when you do it this way, bleary-eyed and bittersweetly counting too few rewards while mainlining coffee at the Colony Café. So! Memo to self (and to you by extension): Next time, give yourself three days.

Prince Adu does daddy duty in Prince of Broadway, this year's Best Feature Narrative prize-winner at the Woodstock Film Festival

Though in fairness it only took one screening to find the eventual best of show; by late Saturday morning the word on the street had Prince of Broadway scoring the festival's Lee Marvin Feature Narrative Award, and by late Saturday night director Sean Baker and his $50,000 gang of upstarts had officially claimed their WFF hardware en route back to the city. It was Baker's second win in as many tries; his story of knock-off Nike merchant Lucky (Prince Adu) and the toddler dumped in his lap by an ex claiming he's the tyke's father had already notched a win at last summer's Los Angeles Film Festival.

And why not -- Baker's previous try at immigrant-verite, Take Out, enjoyed a one-night stand of acclaim when it blipped into theaters earlier this year, and Prince upholds that naturalism with the funny, almost too-intimate edge of family dramedy. A subplot featuring Prince's boss Levon (Karren Karagulian) feels tacked-on and inflated (Baker would have you believe it's both men's stories, but Adu's charisma vanquishes all comers), but the fortune and misfortune tumbling over each other in the Flatiron snow feel authentic, fresh and sincere.

In the discussion following the screening, Baker acknowledged that Take Out was indeed a sort of trial run through shooting more in New York. "I always wanted to work in that area," he said. "It was really the location, I think, that was the genesis of the project. ... I thought, 'Well, Manhattan is so gentrified now, but there is that one section that's left: That wholesale area.' Whenever I visit that area, I still feel like I'm visiting New York for the first time, like when my father brought me into the city as a child in the '70s. So I thought, 'Let's put a child in the middle of this mix, this chaos.'"

Associate producer and co-star Victoria Tate added the story of how she and Baker located their story and their non-professional lead, essentially one in the same. "We would go walk down Broadway pretty much regularly," she said. "Prince was the only person who was really friendly, because I think pretty much everyone is afraid to tell the stories that go on in that neighborhood -- most people being undocumented. Prince was just really, really generous with his stories and his time. We had a little DVD camera we were using to film our research, and he looked great on camera. So we were just like, 'Wow, this is the package.' It was really easy to go from there, because he provided a lot of the other cast members. It was just kind of an organic development in that sense."

Adu spoke briefly and bracingly about the film's impact to date. "It feels great, because if I die tomorrow, then my son will know his Daddy did something great," he said. "It hasn't really changed my life. I don’t want it to change my life. The only person that ever trusted in me in my life was my mother, and I found out she died the last week we were filming. Basically, that was the reason why I opened up to Sean Baker, because I realized that in life you have to take chances and you have to take good chances. It's just by the grace of God that I'm here; I should have died a long time ago. I'm just grateful and very humble. Thank you." Our pleasure, sir.

More to follow, including coverage of the Distribution Wars panel featuring John Sloss, Mark Duplass, Ted Hope, Ryan Werner and Liesl Copland as well as a few thoughts about the fantastic doc Pressure Cooker. The back roads beckon.

Posted at October 5, 2008 10:58 AM

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