By Princess Jones Curtis
New York, NY — In the opening scene of Princess of the Row, Alicia Willis runs across a lush field, dressed as a fantastical princess and accompanied by a unicorn; she monologues about how people only see what they want to see. Moments later, the veil drops and we realize that this isn’t real. In real life, Alicia is a runaway foster child facing the unforgiving reality of Los Angeles’ Skid Row and caring for her homeless father, Beaumont ‘Bo’ Willis (Edi Gathegi).
Played by Tayler Buck (Annabelle: Creation, American Crime Story), the scrappy preteen leads as the film’s protagonist. Buck’s varied and nuanced portrayal is sure to win over audiences; when push came to shove, I found myself rooting for her again and again.
“When I read the script, I knew it would be challenging because I had never done something like this,” she says. “I had never [been] emotionally challenged as much as I had been in this movie. But I wasn’t really worrying about it. I just kinda came to it when I got there and everything worked out. It was just a matter of getting [into] character. And once you’re there, then emotions just flow.”
Buck spent most of her time acting opposite Edi Gathegi, who also worked as a producer for the film. Gathegi (X-Men: First Class, Gone Baby Gone, Twilight) transforms into Beaumont ‘Bo’ Willis, a homeless war vet dealing with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder; oftentimes, he spent entire filming days in character. Gathegi’s performance as Bo presents a singular and memorable physicality; what the actor communicates in his body language adds depth to the film’s emotional life.
Gathegi explains “As much as it is physical, I always like to think of Bo is having a very complex and broken emotional life. I remember there was an early draft of the script and [we]had a conversation about what if we just started paring down everything that he said.” The result is that Gathegi’s Bo is a mostly silent character that still conveys immense emotional depth.
Locations play a big role in the film. A quintessential LA film, Princess of the Row was shot in various locations around the city, including on Skid Row itself. According to director Max Carlson, perspective became a tool to play with the audience’s expectations. In one particularly high stakes scene for Alicia and Bo, Carlson purposely keeps the camera outside of the action to ramp up the drama. “I think it’s scarier to be outside of the room, because of the suspense that can be built up in your mind and what you’re expecting might be going on in the room,” he says “And a lot of times, you know, it is true a lot of times what you can’t see is a bit scarier than what you’re visually confronting directly on.”
Princess of the Row takes on a number of heavy topics—homelessness, mental illness, the foster care system—but ultimately it is a story of hope and love. “I wanted to do a film where when you walk by someone who is homeless [or] suffering from a mental illness, you think twice. You don’t just dismiss them,” says Shawn Austin, co-writer and producer of the film. “And we’re all guilty of having done that, at some point. The aim of this film for me is to give everybody the presence of mind to understand that there is a life and a story behind that person and that they’re worthy of love.”
Princess of the Row will premiere as the opening night film at the 2019 New York Latino Film Festival presented by HBO (NYLFF) on August 14th. Showtime is 7:30 PM at AMC Times Square. For tickets and info visit the NYLFF website.