A twinge of despair lurks just beneath the supposed triumph in Ido Haar’s documentary Thru You Princess. Surface-wise, it’s your standard starving-artist-trying-to-make-it-big doc, hitting all the prerequisite standard beats: the struggle to make it, the fear that you won’t and the inevitable catharsis when you finally do. Here – said artist is a 38-yr old New Orleans singer going by the stage name Princess Shaw. By day though, Samantha Montgomery works as a nurse in a poverty stricken area of The Big Easy. Her economic situation dire – she’s relegated to riding the bus after someone steals all the tires of her car – Samantha, now Princess Shaw, takes to YouTube to air these grievances and sing a cappella songs documenting her despair, loneliness and fragility to the theoretical Internet masses (each of her videos though has less than a hundred views total). One of those viewers is Kutiman, a.k.a Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician well known for mashing up YouTube videos into new pieces. Unbeknownst to Samantha, her alter ego becomes a muse to Kutiman as he constructs a new album centered around ‘Princess Shaw’.
The strongest moments of the doc mirror these two seemingly different artists (one Israeli, the other American; one successful, the other – not) by the common loneliness and hunger that fuels them. Kutiman barely utters over ten words in the film, most of his screen-time spent alone staring at a computer screen, searching through a sea of YouTube videos. The enigma of Kutiman lay bare, suggesting underneath the persona perhaps there’s nothing there at all. He merely an empty vessel in search of others to fill him/it with purpose. The artist seems genuinely uncomfortable around others, all twitches and sideward glances. It’s only in front of that computer screen, searching and piecing together other lost souls that the man seems comfortable in his own skin.
Samantha puts on a better face around others than Kutiman but only because she has to. Unlike Kutiman, she can’t be the ‘Princess Shaw’ she yearns to, the realities of the world keeping her persona at bay. Through her YouTube videos alone, Samantha can become ‘Princess Shaw’ and thus be herself. There’s a terrific sequence early on in the picture where Samantha takes her persona, herself, from the YouTube screen to an actual live performance. Problem is – the entire audience leaves before she even takes the stage, relegating Princess Shaw to sing before an uninterested party of two. Samantha’s struggles to make it become not just a rejection of her musical career, but also a rejection of the person she wishes to become. In this way, Thru You Princess reveals itself to be less interested in the struggles of an artist than in two people finding themselves through the pixels of a computer screen.
Thru You Princess is a testament to identity created through image, of personas crafted and manufactured via Internet and the impossibility to sustain them outside of such a bubble. It’s the most depressing movie about ‘making it’ I’ve ever seen. Art is crafted out of tragedy and always done alone. Every moment of success is undercut by the deep sense that it can’t possibly last. Samantha Montgomery and Ophir Kutiel become willing sacrificial lambs to their own self-idealized creations. This is their happy ending. Late in the picture when Kutiman and Samantha meet for the first time, he asks what she wishes to be called. She doesn’t miss a beat – telling him her name is ‘Princess Shaw’.
At times Thru You Princess can feel slightly laborious – the film structured so that you wait for over sixty minutes for its two central characters to finally share the same space. The film falls under the weight of this structure, the inherent predictability of Samantha’s three-act struggle-to-success obvious to even a layman. It’s in the details, the nuances that Thru You Princess is able to come alive — the questions the film raises about this ‘success’, the despair and tragedy that powers these artists and the unmitigated sadness behind even their own hard-won happy endings.