A mysterious and foreboding 911 call sets the stage for Princess Cyd, the latest drama from Chicago writer/director Stephen Cone, whose Black Box remains one of my favorite indie films ever, and whose Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party isn’t far behind. That phone call lets us know that someone, somewhere has experienced tragedy. We know neither the ins or the outs of that tragedy – but we continue along under the assumption that, at some point, we will. But that isn’t what Princess Cyd is about. Not at all. This is a rich, emotionally resilient picture that feels just like the time it’s occupying – that brief window in summer where everything feels possible.
Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence) is a popular writer who lives in Chicago and enjoys a very content existence. She has a great career, terrific friends, and the sort of curiosity that sometimes abandons us with age. When her 16-year-old niece, Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), comes to visit for two weeks, she seems both hesitant and excited. She hasn’t seen Cyd since she was a small girl and doesn’t really know what to expect. What she gets is a stubborn, outspoken girl who is figuring out her own place in the world, sexually and personally. Not long after arriving, Cyd meets Katie (Malic White), a genderqueer who seems just as open as Cyd, though maybe slightly more confident. Cyd and Katie begins hanging out and figuring one another out, just as Cyd is doing with her aunt, with whom she seems to connect more and more. Miranda and Cyd are two very different people, brought together by one commonality – a woman who isn’t there.
What makes a Stephen Cone film a Stephen Cone film is his unmatched ability to create such emotional richness in the lives of his characters. We see it in the way characters interact with one another. Take, for example, a soiree hosted by Miranda where a group of friends sit around reading pieces of literature and poetry. In any other film that might try that, such a scene would come off as stuffy or pretentious. Here, everyone feels so real and lived in that characters we barely know become lead actors in a scene that couldn’t have just kept going on and on. Another scene where Cyd and Katie are called upon to slow dance in the background of a random film shoot seems as if it might have been improvised on the spot, that I doubt it was. There is such an honesty and integrity to that scene that it could easily be a ‘scene of the year’ candidate.
Religious themes also make an appearance or two in Princess Cyd, as is customary in all of Cone’s work. Here, though, they are less front and center and more peppered in to really showcase Miranda’s strength and commitment to self. She is a religious person, is proud of that, and doesn’t have to define it for anyone other than herself. She lets her beliefs out, in various forms, through her writing, and has a powerhouse of a scene where she explains to her somewhat naïve niece just how important it is for her to respect what other people need and don’t need for the contentment in their lives. Miranda sees, in Cyd, a youthfulness and energy for new experiences that she might wish she had more of. In turn, Cyd, in Miranda, sees a contentment and confidence that she wishes she had more of. Princess Cyd is a coming-of-age film in every sense of the world but it might be more appropriate to call it a ‘coming-of-self’ picture.
As Miranda and Cyd, Rebecca Spence and Jessie Pinnick are luminous. At first, I kept thinking Spence had this strong Amy Brenneman quality to her performance. By the end of the film, I was thinking Amy Brenneman had a thing or two she could learn from the nuance and subtlety in Spence’s performance. She was a true revelation, just radiating empathy and this lightness of essence, turning simple glances into resounding statements. Pinnick turns Cyd into this complex, ever-evolving mystery that unravels slowly throughout. An act three confession to Katie bookends the film with the end of a narrative thread we really didn’t need, but still felt welcome in that it allowed us to see Cyd opening herself up entirely with someone.
As a filmmaker, Cone keeps exploring new and exciting ground. Princess Cyd is less ensemble reliant and more about two characters, their worlds, and how they blend them together. This film also has a confidence and maturity to it that marks a real turning point. It’s still about adolescent exploration and discovery, but only as a catalyst to tell a deeper, more important story about how we choose to find ourselves. I honestly didn’t want my time with these characters to end. I wanted to hang on with them a little bit longer just to enjoy the summer as long as I could. Princess Cyd is a joyous experience for anyone looking to get lost for a while in a world that’s as real as they come, but as magical as anything you could find in a work of fiction.
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