In crafting such a charming and engaging understated film, Cone makes a convincing case for a coming of age LGBT story, minus the melodrama.
Despite its few attempts to flirt with suspense and to infuse its story with tension, Princess Cyd achieves what is seemingly impossible in contemporary LGBT film: it is a portrait of discovery and youthful exploration that avoids drama. Stephen Cone’s film is so uninterested in exploiting big moments in the queer experience that it ultimately feels more like a prelude, an unharried opening to familiar fraught tales. But rather than be a hindrance to the story – or, worse, an instance of narrative dishonesty, this makes Princess Cyd a fresh take on a series of events that doesn’t have to be couched in angst. While the film’s pacing may strike some as overly slow, its languid pace and unfailing commitment to older generation characters ultimately balances the film and is crucial to not only its message about the validity of different lifestyles but its low-key nature and sweetly sentimental tone.
Cone focuses his script on 16-year-old Cyd’s (Jessie Pinnick) visit to Chicago and her reconnection with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a popular novelist. A shocking 911 call opens the film, giving us some background as to why Cyd hasn’t seen Miranda in eight years. The latter is naturally worried about her niece enjoying her stay and liking her bookish aunt. While Cyd is very openly not a reader, this is the biggest difference between them and hardly proves to be a source of conflict as they proceed to bond. What is very evident is that Cyd is still naive in many ways. Miranda writes a lot about religious characters; Cyd says she thinks it’s “cool” that people like that exist. Cyd recognizes a connection between Miranda and her writer-friend Anthony (James Vincent Meredith) and asks if she’s interested, if she’s had sex recently (she hasn’t, and she’s okay with that). The two are very frank with each other, but these awkwardly innocent, albeit forward, questions only prompt frustration once.
Cyd, for her part, seems easy-going, if only for her lack of negativity and judgment. Chicago is wholly unfamiliar and she gets lost on her first day out, but there’s never any sign of worry on her sun kissed face, a result of frequent sunbathing. Besides, she meets Katie (Malic White) while asking for directions at a coffee shop. There’s an immediate attraction between the two, but Cone doesn’t illustrate this with romantic music or exaggerated close-ups. He insists on a realism that allows the audience to feel the hint of a spark that draws these characters together without making their relationship feel like a foregone conclusion. Cyd, after all, isn’t overly sexualized. She “kind of” has a boyfriend, but as she admits at a literary soiree, she’s interested in everything. This explains her mid-film make-out session with Ridley (Matthew Quattrocki). But, thankfully, Cone avoids sensationalizing Cyd’s sexuality or even insisting on defining it.
In some ways, Cone operates in stereotypes. Katie has a mohawk and wears a lot of button down shirts and plaid. The inexperienced Cyd openly asks her aunt how sex between two women works (Miranda laughingly suggests a Google search). And after the two give in to their attraction, Cyd bears her past traumas. But Cone still subverts these stereotypes. Despite her family tragedy, Cyd is so thoroughly not damaged by the experience. And there’s an instance of implied sexual assault involving Katie that is so intent on not being exploitative that it takes a moment to realize that the horror we imagine actually didn’t happen. What could have defined not only the film, but these characters’ lives, is very much a non-issue.
One thing that’s impossible to miss is that, at every opportunity, Cone chooses to shoot scenes from afar, slowing bringing the camera closer to the action. Princess Cyd as a whole operates in much the same manner. The audience is kept at a distance, watching these events pass without feeling any intense urgency. The engaging events themselves ultimately draw us into the film. No script beats announce themselves as momentous, and the characters don’t embellish the importance of what transpires. In crafting such a charming and engaging understated film, Cone makes a convincing case for a coming of age LGBT story, minus the melodrama.