In Princess Cyd, the eponymous sixteen-year old from Virginia visits her novelist Aunt Miranda in Chicago in an attempt to learn more about her dead mother’s childhood. Despite a frantic opening scene of pitch black visual accompaniment to a 911 phone call expositing the death of the mother, the film resembles a fairytale. The lightness thereof stems from director Stephen Cone’s exuberant humanism. Cyd enters as an outsider, seemingly the only person unfamiliar with Miranda’s lofty reputation in a Chicago characterized by its overwhelming sense of community, but quickly finds herself welcomed with open arms. The two bond quickly and genuinely despite their clashing personalities, with Miranda’s blend of intellectualism and insecurity balanced out by Cyd’s spirit and inexperience. Their growth — a result of each other’s influences — occurs parallel to each other, and their strict individuality — in contrast to films like Persona or Queen of Earth that seem to synchronize character development — is empowering to see: in one of the film’s most powerful moments, Miranda eloquently explains the importance of subjectivity, connecting the joy of sexual exploration for Cyd to the gratification that comes from good literature.
Spirituality has always been a cinematic means of introspection, and though the pair’s discussions on the topic hardly interrogate its significance, Miranda’s religion becomes a subtle window into her potential grief and loneliness. Whereas most independent films from younger directors tend to find an easy target in the touchy subject matter, Cone never judges — his treatment of the matter is another extension of his empathy. It permeates into the visual style of the film, imbuing the characters with soft glows and dreamy auras, as if a higher being was looking out for them.
Both characters soon discover love interests — Miranda in divorced single-father contemporary Anthony, and Cyd in androgynous female barista Katie who becomes her first local friend. Regardless, the two remain the focus of the stories, however, and retain their independence in dictating the courses of the relationships. Cone’s progressive treatment of sexuality as a wholly fluid concept through Cyd’s experimentation is further indicative of his human curiosity; it is all encompassing, and his characters are perpetually discovering new things about themselves. Katie’s gender is hardly referenced, and scenes between the two are refreshingly ungendered. See the scene in which they, mistaken for a traditional straight couple are asked to slow-dance in the background of a film shoot, or another in which Cyd confidently struts down a street in Katie’s Prom tuxedo. There is, however, one anomalous subplot involving sexual assault however, that, while resolved in a positive manner, leaves a bad taste in the mouth in how it uses a third party’s suffering as a means to reach a catharsis immediately after an argument between Miranda and Cyd — the only other scene depicting conflict, brief-lived. It feels tasteless in an otherwise politically-sound movie — assault as plot device, to be quickly forgotten after it has fulfilled its use.
The shifts between streets enclosed by large structures and open spaces practically eradicate all social divisions. This is a liberal, liberated city, and the usual exclusivity that is prescribed to intellectualism or academia is nonexistent: the old and the young all cohere at a monthly soiree hosted by Miranda, synthesizing their various experiences in a wholesome, electric party sequence; “what the fuck does a reader even seem like,” a character questions while showing off which books she has read, after her un-literary appearance is remarked on. Differences are no longer frightening! Novelists are approachable on the streets and sixteen year old nieces who initially struggle to define themselves with more than just “I play soccer”, can happily discover joy through slam poetry and soirees.
Embedded with past struggles that are never explicitly depicted on-screen, Cone’s characters are sympathetic throughout. Despite this, the levity of the film and the ease of which it resolves conflicts may prove unsatisfactory for some past the immediate screening experience. One is inclined to wish them well– to buy into the boundless warmth and joy and envision that a liberal utopia such as Cone’s is possible — but it is perhaps too detached from the consequences and politics of reality to provide any lasting commentaries to the type of audience that would seek out the film in the first place. Still: it is a nice sentiment that gently clashes against both a state of world affairs in which bad news recurs on a short fuse, and a cinema desperate not to let you forget it.