It takes an incredible amount of restraint not to tie your film up with a neat little bow, but nothing could be more fitting for a filmmaker as committed to truth-telling as Stephen Cone is. In his latest film, “Princess Cyd,” the Chicago-based writer-director renders his deeply human characters so precisely, it’s as if they stepped right off the screen and into your living room. The two central women are equal parts charming, awkward, yearning and lost. In short, they’re real. Their complexity is all the more impressive coming from a male filmmaker — Cone proves it’s possible for men to write sexually liberated, empowered, autonomous women.
Though billed as a coming-of-age story, “Princess Cyd” is much more about relationships between women, across generations and through layers of grief. Specifically, it’s the story of sixteen-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and her Aunt, a well-known novelist named Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence). Cyd’s mother died when she was young, and she’s been living with her father in South Carolina. When Miranda agrees to host the rambunctious teen for the summer, the two relatives find themselves thrust into familial intimacy despite not knowing much about each other.
Cyd, for instance, is about the only person in Chicago (certain circles, anyhow) who doesn’t know her Aunt’s work. When Miranda offers her a book, she casually replies: “I don’t really read.” Cyd would rather sunbathe on Miranda’s manicured lawn than talk about “books ‘n stuff,” and Miranda bravely digs up her old swimsuit to join. She’s a cool Aunt, offering Cyd beer and encouraging her various summer flings, but she’s less prepared for Cyd’s prying about her own romantic life. “Do you ever have sex?” Cyd asks bluntly, and Miranda sheepishly admits it’s been a while.
Exchanges like that give the film its restrained friction, while avoiding the predictable traps. Miranda doesn’t balk, but she’s clearly taken aback. Cyd might be an obnoxious snoop, but she’s also genuinely curious. It’s a keen illustration of Miranda’s discomfort with her newfound maternal role. Earlier, she hesitates awkwardly before spreading sunscreen on Cyd’s back. It’s one of those masterfully subtle moments that calls up every other time Cyd has not had a mother to rub her back or brush her hair. Miranda has invested in her work over her family, and we see what that sacrifice entails through her interactions with Cyd.
Cyd’s casual sexual exploration is a breath of fresh air. She is as interested in the cute gardener neighbor as she is in the cute barista, Katie (Malic White). Katie sports a throwback mullet/mohawk combination, and when Cyd tells Miranda that she kind of looks like a boy, she replies, “Maybe she is a boy.” “Yeah, maybe so,” Cyd says, shrugging. It’s a casual handling of gender and sexuality that more movies should emulate. The same goes for the understated sex scenes; the most explicit shot is of Cyd masturbating. (Masturbation scenes should be required in any coming-of-age about female sexuality).
Miranda’s sexuality, or lack thereof, is also something of a revelation. With a premise that begs for lessons learned, and a film landscape that loves to make everything about sex, Miranda’s self-satisfied celibacy is nothing short of radical. “It is not a handicap to be one way and not the other,” Miranda tells Cyd in an inspired monologue. Standing over a kitchen full of dirty dishes, finally dishing it back to the saucy teenager she is trying desperately to love, Miranda is the very picture of modern motherhood.
Spence is entirely captivating as Miranda — resolute and warm at the same time. A seasoned Chicago actress, she commands the screen with a graceful strength like a cross between Diane Lane and Amy Brenneman. If show business made any sense, her star would be on the rise.
Cone packs a lot into 90 minutes, and as such there are a few loose ends. Cyd and Miranda rarely discuss the deep void between them, their shared loss. Cyd’s questions about heaven seem a little childish compared to her refreshing sexual maturity, and Miranda’s religious beliefs seem unnecessarily shoehorned into a story with plenty to explore. Miranda’s artist salon is a spirited group scene in the film’s second half, but reads like a play for literary references and a missed opportunity for Cone to poke fun at Miranda (and maybe himself). Cyd’s gossip session with two older lesbians is a highlight, however.
Loose ends are to be expected in a film more interested in life as it is than some over-stimulating fantasy. “Princess Cyd” is a triumphant little film — little in the detailed moments it creates, not the content of its character. Anchored by complicated, smart, funny women, “Princess Cyd” is a rare delight of a film and a model for others to follow.
“Princess Cyd” premiered at the Maryland Film Festival in May. It is being distributed by Wolfe Releasing.