I first discovered Stephen Cone’s work just recently, after much pressure from friends already familiar with it. His feature, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, is a minor triumph in how an ensemble’s worth of characters all get their fair shake. That, and it’s only 87 minutes long (and on Netflix streaming). Most of the wide-released works today would and should tremble at the complexity and conciseness of that work. Princess Cyd is no different, although it goes in a different direction. While there’s certainly an ensemble to applaud here, Cone dives deep into the push-and-pull relationship between emotional fulfillment and pleasure or joy. He explores how the two things can be conflated, but without being fussy.
There’s also an earnest and respectful coming of age tale wrapped in here, among many other things, yet despite the breadth of what Cone is trying to accomplish here, everything in Princess Cyd gets a fair shake. The ensemble extends beyond just the characters and onto the subject matter being approached, and with such wonderment. This is sensual and empathetic filmmaking without being lush or overwrought. It’s all matter-of-fact that being unemotional and practical isn’t going to work. It never does.
Cyd Loughlin (Jessie Pinnick) goes to visit her novelist aunt, Miranda (Rebecca Spence), for a summer in Chicago. When she meets Katie (Malic White), she starts to question her own sexuality. That questioning results in Cyd projecting onto Miranda, who is also a bit stiff in her own sexuality. The push-and-pull relationship between Cyd and Miranda sets the stage for both of their awakenings, or is it their reaffirmations?
I could sing praises for Cone’s direction, but Princess Cyd relies very heavily on its cast, who just so happen to be confident and phenomenal. Pinnick is the stand-out here, showcasing the range needed for the story but saying so much with so little. Cone is the kind of director that doesn’t want to spell out what a character is feeling at any given moment; it’s on the viewer to live with these characters and understand how they act, whether that be something like a soft sigh or a retort with just enough attitude to warrant a reaction. Pinnick understands this and layers her performance with little things, even when her Cyd is called upon to be precocious or reactive.
Rebecca Spence is wonderful, as well. Her Miranda is not without faults, one of them being the way people can impose without noticing. Spence seems to know of such flaws, never heightening them to be quirks. There’s nary a moment in Princess Cyd where a character does something uncharacteristic of who they are. It’s all incredibly controlled without being constricting. You can see that in White’s Katie and how she reacts to trauma done to her. She may recoil, but no anger is sprouted towards her assaulter. She looks numb to it, but not in the way someone who’s been attacked multiple times is numb. It’s the kind of numb that comes with self-reflection, and that fits with that character.
Zoe White’s cinematography is a huge standout, too. There are plenty of sequences that look like they’re going to break with reality in the way many coming-of-age films do, but this never does. Be it a roving shot of Cyd and Katie running on the beach or Miranda studying her body in a mirror, these sequences are played out as having aesthetic warmth without becoming soppy. Princess Cyd isn’t the kind of film that footnotes a particular crucial sequence with a music cue to bolster it, but that’s because it doesn’t need tricks like that to land its moments.
Cone’s empathy isn’t his limitation, though. Between this and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, it’s clear that his love for all of his characters doesn’t blind him from his obligations to those same characters. This was made clear in the beginning of Princess Cyd as the fate of Cyd’s mother, which happened years ago at this point, is talked about. We can see the pain in Miranda and Cyd manifesting in different ways. That pain isn’t relied upon to be an emotional crux, though. It’s just a moment, albeit a beautiful one. And that’s what Princess Cyd ends up being, a film filled with beautiful moments that cohere gracefully. Such is life.