Chicago-based director Stephen Cone has quietly crafted, over the past decade, some of the loveliest films about queerness, faith, and queerness of faith in recent memory. His careful synthesis of exquisitely balanced ensemble casts and a straight-on, vaguely dreamy style makes for films that feel immensely attuned to both their main protagonists and the peripheral characters that fill out their existences. The two films that established his reputation on the American festival circuit, The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, notably both took place in the distinct milieus of churches and never resorted to one-dimensional or dogmatic views of believers or nonbelievers.
In this regard, Princess Cyd represents something of a departure for Cone. It follows the stories of Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) as the former, a vivacious teen about to enter her high school senior year, visits the latter, a professor and author of some renown, in Chicago for a few weeks. Their relationship is, from the start, playful and dynamic, as the two push and poke at the difference in years, views, and experiences between them. During her short stay, Cyd attends parties – her aunt’s “soirées,” a turn of phrase that does not go unnoticed – explores the city, and embarks upon a tentative relationship with an androgynous barista, Katie (Malic White).
Much of this is more or less well-worn territory, aside from Cyd’s queerness, which is blessedly clear in its undefined state: she has a boyfriend at the beginning of the film, and states candidly that she likes everything. With Cone’s careful eye for unfettered, totally honest candidness, it is in this kind of moment among many that Princess Cyd distinguishes itself, not just for its candor but for the casual way in which it is said.
The title and familiar trappings of the coming-of-age story might suggest that this is entirely Cyd’s story, but crucially this is just as much, if not moreso, the story of Miranda. The two are constantly set in counterpoint – Miranda adores reading, Cyd does not, to name the most obvious difference – and Miranda’s acceptance of her niece’s flaws and reckoning with her aging are laid out with an overwhelming amount of care and delicacy by Spence (in an ostensibly quiet and reactive performance that nevertheless feels as lively as Pinnick’s) and Cone. She grows and changes as much as Cyd does, but it is leavened and enhanced by her experience.
Cone’s direction is unobtrusive but effective, and in addition to his usual gorgeous slow-motion, he sprinkles in a few astonishing single take scenes, including an absolutely spectacular slow zoom-in on the first meal that Cyd and Miranda share. But what distinguishes Princess Cyd the most, aside from the utterly faithful renderings of all of the character relationships through both peaks and valleys, is its freewheeling mood. Able to flit in and out of moments, extending single interactions for long periods of time while making days pass by in the blink of an eye, Cone weaves in so much goodness and kindness into this short story. And in the brilliant coda, Princess Cyd manages to evoke the feeling of life moving on, marked by experiences and moving forward with lightness and grace.