Movie Review: A Homeless fantasy, “Princess of the Row”

If you can look on homeless person and not instinctively turn away, you know the last thing this human condition needs is sugar-coating sentimentality.

Everybody in that situation has a story and none of them are pretty. So a homeless kid who imagines herself a fairytale princess with a pet “magic animal,” a unicorn? That’s worth a skeptical raising of the eyebrow.

“Princess of the Row” lets Alicia have her fantasy. She’s 12, after all. But it insists on showing us the calamity that put her here, the brain-injured combat vet of a father she won’t abandon, the impulsive, ill-considered decision-making, incapable of caring for a potentially dangerous and delusional man.

Because, again, she’s 12.

The new feature from the editor/director of “Ninja Apocalypse” is a drama about the homeless that doesn’t blink. “Princess of the Row” may lapse into sentiment, here and there, and reach for melodrama at times.

But the reality of the situation pulls you in, the compelling portrayal of tweenage reasoning is spot on. The leads — Tayler Buck (of “Annabelle: Creation”) and Edi Gathegi of “Twilight” and TV’s “The Black List”) — are real in the most understated ways. The warm moments never come close to maudlin.

“So, what’s your plan, Alicia?” one of the adults she interacts with asks her. She has no good answer, but the movie shows it to us in many ways.

Her “plan” is to get through just another day, get her dad, Sgt. Bo Willis through another night on LA’s skid row. Sometimes his one-good eye is fixed in a “thousand yard stare.” At others, he “comes back” to her. A birthday cupcake and night in a nearby junkyard’s rusted Trans-Am is the best she can do for him.

Alicia is in and out of The System, giving her aunt (Tabitha Brown) a reason to give up, keeping her social worker (Ava Ortiz) exasperated. Alicia won’t leave her father, whose demons keep him out of a group home or shelter.

“He’s dangerous,” the social worker the other residents of “the row,” who won’t say where they’ve gone. “She’s a little girl. He can’t take care of her.”

And she, as we see, can’t take care of him. Sgt. Willis, glimpsed as “Dad” back before the combat duty that gave him his injury, is easily triggered. He may be a walking, dysfunctional wreck. But he has the muscle memory of a warrior, which shows up more than once in their travels.

Alicia needs an escape, one that doesn’t involve dreaming and writing about unicorns.

Might the new foster home arranged for Alicia with a Northern California writer (Martin Sheen) and his wife (Jenny Gago) be her salvation? They have a horse, after all.

Don’t bank on it.

The waypoints on this journey, co-written by A Shawn Austin and director Van Maximillian Carlson, may be over-familiar. We sit and wait for the “a pretty girl like you” speech.

But “Princess of the Row” mostly confines itself to the limited world Alicia is buying into — a tent, which is the only housing her father can tolerate, emergency trips to the VA when he runs out of his meds — her options for “saving” him at 12 neither obvious nor recommended.

The alternative, when she’s not with him, sees her dad face homeless-beating jocks, the threat of arrest and a million other things that could injure or kill someone not all there and on the streets.

Buck gives a performance impressive enough to call “break out,” but Gathegi, in a largely non-verbal role, utterly loses himself in the makeup, the wardrobe, the environment and the character.

He and “Princess of the Row” will move you, if you give them the chance, if just this once, you can make yourself not turn away from the troubled people right in front of you.

MPA Rating: TV-14, violence, some of it directed against a child

Cast: Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz and Martin Sheen.

Credits: Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson, script by A Shawn Austin and Van Maximilian Carlson. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:25

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