Film Review: Princess Cyd

Wonderfully drawn women, patient storytelling and lush cinematography make this coming-of-ager an unassuming delight.
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Princess Cyd is not for those who like their stories told quickly and their payoffs to be thundering. The eighth film from writer-director Stephen Cone, who will be the subject of an early career retrospective at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image this month, is a decidedly “creep-up-on-you” experience. But with lead characters that are so lifelike, the word “character” with its suggestions of artifice seems ill suited to them, Princess Cyd is movingly satisfying.

It’s summer vacation and 17-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is not getting along with her single father, so he decides to send her to her Aunt Miranda’s (a terrific Rebecca Spence) in Chicago for several days. Miranda is a well-known novelist who lives by herself in the childhood home she once shared with Cyd’s late mom. But Miranda is no lonely spinster—she’s a generous community figure who hosts “soirees” at her house the second Friday of every month, when fellow colleagues at the university where she teaches, as well as members of her church and other neighbors and friends, gather to eat, drink and tell and read stories.

Abrupt, even frank to the point of rudeness, Cyd is not a big reader, but she is a generally good-natured soul who fits in fine with her aunt’s liberal crowd of ethnically and amorously diverse friends. She is also quick to make friends of her own, soon after arrival catching the eye of a pretty barista named Katie (Malic White) for whom her feelings deepen. As the days progress, passionate Cyd and her civilized aunt do, of course, bond, but not without stepping on each other’s toes as two women who influence each other without ever yielding their individual points of view.

This is a nuanced dance that Cone accomplishes with elegance. Perhaps 20 minutes into the movie you may be thinking, “Very pretty, but where is all this going, exactly?” But once Aunt Miranda hosts her soiree of Chicago progressives, the film manages to take off without noticeably accelerating its pace. The personalities of our heroines have been ably established; they have grown more comfortable with each other (and we with their hang-ups), so that when at last they face off, their confrontation builds that much more convincingly for the solidity of its foundation.

This confrontation makes for a superb scene in which local Chicago actress Spence shines. You just know that what she says with such feeling is precisely what an extraordinarily well-educated, insightful and eloquent woman author who, for all her many gifts, has deeply rooted anxieties just like the rest of us would say when challenged by an intelligent but thoughtless teen. Anyone who thinks a person cannot or ought not to write stories for those of a different gender should be shut inside a room with Princess Cyd and made to take notes. Cone has been called a “humanist” for writing characters with admirable complexities, but it might be more accurate to call him an astute mimic. Clearly, he is able to first recognize and secondly render the shades of which people are comprised. But if his portrayals are indeed “generous,” it must also be noted that he has taken for his subjects here a particular kind of people: those who are comprehensibly decent—that is, well-intentioned, no more ill or odd than anyone else who has been unable to escape a brush with trauma. His primary concern is not with evil, even when its specter looms largely, so that the end result simply appears to ring true to the way the decent but flawed speak and act.

Even during its more dramatic moments the film never goes in for operatics, though it isn’t without elements that in less sensitive hands could have been teased into melodrama. This restraint is another characteristic to the director’s credit, but Princess Cyd is no Spartan affair. Zoe White’s cinematography is lush, bright and adds a heightened element to the slowly recounted narrative that, in its richness, is nicely complementary.

The film’s final note is as un-showy as everything that has preceded it, but because it feels like the natural result of its antecedents, it makes for a doozy of a moment whose power may surprise you. “I believe in grace,” Miranda says in answer to Cyd’s question about her beliefs regarding the afterlife. So it is that the earned finale of Princess Cyd has the ability to make believers of those who wait.

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