by Ken Bakely
The emotional core of Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd is at this symposium of sorts, held once or twice per month by Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a Chicago-based novelist. She invites a number of friends and acquaintances, and they eat, drink, talk, and read poetry. Throughout the evening, there is a nearly spiritual element to the power that the art conveys, the energy that the dialogue has, and the mood that their presence carries. The film only shows us a few minutes of this soirée, but the feeling swells, radiance spreads, and the drive in Miranda’s soul is apparent.
What makes this particular one so interesting is that there’s a visitor to the house, and by extension, to the meeting. Her teenaged niece, Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), has flown up from South Carolina for a few weeks. At first, they have little in common – Cyd doesn’t like to read, a notion which her aunt struggles to hide her discontent for. Miranda also doesn’t understand the girl’s athletic drive, her placement of physical immediacy over personal inclination, and what it would take to make her interested in such things.
A more obvious filmmaker would make this clash of worldviews the sole focus of the film. But Cone does not sell us short. They bond, and grow, and it comes at a vital time in Cyd’s life. At a coffee shop, she meets Katie (Malic White), a young woman with whom she becomes infatuated. This is something she has never explored, but through the philosophical and humanistic guidance of her aunt, learns to address her past and future. They break the difference between face-value encounters and larger implications, and we watch these characters come to know each other.
To watch the budding romance between Katie and Cyd is warmly charming. To watch the complex relationship between Cyd and Miranda is fundamentally engaging. But combined together, all of these ties become something more. Princess Cyd comes to life, and Cone shows his expanding strengths as a storyteller, and the lead actresses – Pinnick, Spence, and White – fit naturally into the world of the script. Cyd does not have a connection set by the story to her girlfriend, and another to her aunt, and another to everyone else in the story. Instead, it’s inevitable but pristine, improvisational yet meaningful.
These characters feel real. They communicate like human beings. Awkward pauses, delayed jokes, and bursts of passion or driven argument. Their existence guides the story at a believable and deliberate pace. Cone’s two most widely seen movies – The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party – explore thorny reconciliations with spirituality and the collective. Princess Cyd is no exception, but the theme is less upfront than it’s been before. It moves in this wonderful moment when, after Cyd makes fun of her aunt’s lack of a boyfriend, Miranda explains to her that, yes, while she fits the stereotype of the bookish, single woman with a sparse sex life, there is a satisfaction to be found elsewhere for her. It comes in the gatherings she has in her home, when the discussions of culture and humanity and the world are so pure and thoughtful, that they are irreplaceable. It fills her soul, like how Cyd feels with Katie. She ends by telling her niece that we all must pursue our own selves.
It’s occasions like those which transcend the film’s somewhat lagging pace or tendency to never develop a throughline. Princess Cyd finds an alternate power in a simple exchange, and while it does not create that same lightning that a tighter plot might have, we gain something unique. Perhaps there is something to be said in why movies like these are hard to come by – ones with strong female characters and bold, radiant expressions – but we can relish those which do succeed. Cone presents a lifelike world and inhabits it with gifted performers. He fills it with more than he ever has before, and the path keeps expanding. Much like Miranda, he is an artist who finds joy in the process around him.