There are many scenes in “Presenting Princess Shaw” so strong, so genuinely moving you can forgive that it’s wildly unethical. One of those arrives around the halfway mark. The doc plays fly on the wall to one Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, a New Orleans caretaker who moonlights as one of the Internet’s untold aspiring stars. Her brand is music and, at 38, she regularly fills her YouTube channel with a cappella renditions of original songs — teeming with heartache and resilience — plus video confessionals updating her tens of followers of the progress that’s not happening.
Suddenly Shaw discovers her hard work has paid off: A guy in Tel Aviv, renowned video artist Ophir Kutiel (introduced performing at the Guggenheim), has mashed one of her videos together with a handful by other musicians, creating a symphony based around her vocals. She sits on a park bench listening to it, crying through a beaming smile that someone, and someone with power, has finally heard her. Even better: It’s getting hits. She’s made it.
How did director Ido Haar find Shaw? Well, um, through Kutiel. It seems Haar has reverse-engineered his doc. He knew Kutiel, who uses YouTube finds without telling their creators (at least not initially), was going to make Shaw the centerpiece of his next work. So he tracked her down, convinced her to be filmed by some rando and didn’t tell her about the surprise awaiting her. And when she discovers her big breakthrough has finally, unexpectedly come, Haar’s camera will be right there to witness her reaction.
Is this wrong? Almost certainly. For one thing, Shaw spends most of the doc not doing very well. Money problems are constant, and her YouTube videos sketch a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness — of someone desperately trying, with every post, to make a connection from a tiny corner of the Internet. She never speaks directly to Haar, who’s always off-camera, and he’s allowed access to a family meeting, where she and others discuss the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
It’s queasy watching “Princess Shaw” — and also revelatory, even useful. Movies love an underdog, but they also love winners, and for most of “Shaw” she isn’t one. She’s just one of many who after the same prize. When she gets it, we can only think of the many just like her who haven’t had the same luck, who are still working hard at a dream that may never come true.
Then there’s Shaw herself. As a singer she’s better than average, though that’s part of the attraction: Her alto is soothingly scratchy, almost plain. The songs she writes elevate her voice: They aren’t torch but chill and deceptively modest — good for late night feel bad vibes. As a person she’s even more relatable. Her emotions aren’t easily concealed, and as she finds herself flying to Tel Aviv and performing in front of audiences, she’s unable to keep herself from freaking out, from exclaiming through laughter at how weird her life has suddenly become. Haar’s motives were manipulative, but they were also at least partly noble. Success often requires a hustle, and if “Presenting Princess Shaw” helps her take the next step from viral star to actual star, the ethical fumbling may have been justified — arguably.