'Princess Cyd': Film Review

The mix of awkward and delicate suits the adolescent heart of the story.

An emotionally and sexually adventurous teen and her novelist aunt get to know each other in a coming-of-age drama by Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone.

When 16-year-old Cyd announces with cheerful nonchalance that "I don't really read," she's in a book-lined room, and more than a few of the volumes on the shelves were written by her aunt Miranda, the woman she's addressing. Their literary divide is one of several obvious differences between the two. But what might have devolved into cutesy odd-couple territory instead moves in unexpected directions, bolstered by a fundamental idealism.

Even with a backstory of devastating violence (handled with impressive concision), Princess Cyd is a film in which strangers are open and kind and where friends, in a casual ritual of spiritual communion, gather to share meals and read literary passages to one another.

Premiering at BAMcinemaFest in New York, the new feature by Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble's Birthday Party) can be clunkily earnest, but it rises above those lapses to build a believable sense of dawning self-awareness in its well-played central duo, who, in different ways, undergo physical awakenings during their time together.

The action begins nine years after the calamitous background event, when vivacious soccer player Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), at her widowed father's suggestion, travels to Chicago from South Carolina (more a random point of reference than a true place in the story) to spend a few summer weeks with Miranda (Rebecca Spence), her mother's sister. As with any sudden pairing, the new circumstances present awkward territory to navigate — territory that Cyd, with little deference to age, tends to bluster into tactlessly, questioning her aunt about her sex life and offering callow, judgmental advice. But even with her insensitive remarks, Cone frames their differences not as a clash but as a rewarding mutual inquiry.

In addition to the 40-ish Miranda's prolific literary pursuits, her religious faith — a matter of bemused curiosity to her niece — is a source of sustenance and joy. While Miranda is contentedly unattached, Cyd is exploring her sexuality from whatever angle presents itself. She has a sort-of boyfriend back home, and shares a hot and heavy moment with a handsome neighbor (Matthew Quattrocki) of Miranda's. But it's Katie (Malic White, very good), a mohawked barista with an exceptionally warm gaze, who truly captures her attention. Given that Cyd and her aunt are still getting to know each other, the ease with which Cyd tells her about the blossoming romance, and Miranda's delighted reaction, are emblematic of Cone's optimistic view of human nature.

When he makes room for true friction, the results are charged. Spence delivers Miranda's response to an offhanded insult from Cyd not just with ferocious clarity but with an electric frisson of self-knowledge unfolding in the instant. More melodramatic turns of event are, in contrast, fumbled — notably a sequence involving an attempted sexual assault.

Cone isn't above schmaltzy montages, but to the writer-director's credit, he doesn't tie up every loose end of his hopeful story. He leaves the unexpressed feelings between Miranda and her longtime friend Anthony (James Vincent Meredith), a fellow writer, achingly unresolved. Dreamy and earthbound, Princess Cyd is less interested in so-called answers than in its characters' stumbling grace.

Production company: Sunroom Pictures
Distributor: Wolfe Releasing
Cast: Rebecca Spence, Jessie Pinnick, Malic White, James Vincent Meredith, Matthew Quattrocki, Tyler Ross
Director-screenwriter: Stephen Cone
Producers: Grace Hahn, Madison Ginsberg, Stephen Cone
Executive producers: Bryan Hart, Scott Hughes, Thomas Patrick Lane
Director of photography: Zoë White
Production designer: Amanda Brinton
Costume designer: Kate Grube
Editor: Christopher Gotschall
Composer: Heather McIntosh
Casting directors: Mickie Paskal, Jennifer Rudnicke, AJ Links

97 minutes