At once a vacation movie and a homecoming story, a coming-of-age and coming-out tale, and a study of both teen epiphanies and adult convictions, writer-director Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd is distinguished by a dramatic complexity that would seem to run counter to its remarkably even-tempered tone. The film’s summertime plot picks up nine years after a tragic incident left Cyd Loughlin (Jessie Pinnick) without a mother—a backstory revealed obliquely in the police recording that opens the film, then detailed later in a cathartic speech delivered by Cyd in close-up to the camera. In spite of this turbulent history, however, the film’s characters exhibit few obvious traces of having persevered through unthinkable trauma, and this is the clearest indication of Cone’s maturity as a dramatist. Instead of underlining past disturbances with ornery character traits, the director examines well-adjusted individuals who’ve managed to compartmentalize their pain.
Cyd, for her part, gratifies herself with soccer and boyfriends, but that changes when the 16-year-old is shipped by her depressive father, Jason (Keith Kupferer), from South Carolina to the suburbs of Chicago to spent time with her estranged aunt, Miranda (Rebecca Spence). Miranda’s a semi-famous middlebrow novelist trading in reassuring spiritualism and subdued elements of fantasy, and none of these subjects—literature, faith, or the fantastic—particularly speak to the atheist-identifying Cyd. Still, the conversations they share—at first stilted, then demonstrating a camaraderie that belies their years apart from one another—are rarely combative, and Cyd’s relative immaturity never plays as kids-these-days cynicism.
Alternately, Miranda’s not merely characterized as a stuffy old soul; she’s confident in her thinking rather than stuck in it. When Cyd starts falling for Katie (Malic White), a local girl working at a coffee shop, Miranda’s reflexive acceptance and encouragement of the affair is a refreshing surprise, since it’s easy to imagine seeming cultural liberals of her age exercising more caution around the subject of a niece or nephew’s sexual curiosity.
A professor of performing arts at Northwestern University and an actor in his own right, Cone is the classical personification of an actor’s director, building his films around modest, sharply defined ensembles and channeling his scripts toward lengthy dialogue scenes that are psychologically revealing but not ostentatiously so. Princess Cyd features a few such actor-driven scenarios, from a boundary-crossing backyard sunbathing session that finds Cyd playfully grilling her aunt on her sex life to a tough-love speech handed down by Miranda after her high-minded dinner party bores Cyd to the point that the teen fools around with a neighbor. These scenes submit to the simple give-and-take of one-on-one conversation in lieu of any cinematic cleverness, and their rewards—namely, the reflective space to admire the carefully timed pauses and finely modulated affective shades of the performers—are a direct byproduct of Cone’s shot-reverse-shot modesty. (Meanwhile, more ambitious gestures behind the camera, like a Polanski-esque creeping dolly shot that surveys one early conversation, are awkwardly ill-fitting.)
What gets less of Cone’s attention are the bits of connective tissue that string together these dramatic focal points—those niggling trails of logic required to hold a plot upright. When it’s time to cut to the chase regarding Cyd and Katie’s romance, for instance, Cone contrives a corny scenario in which a film crew spots the two in the background of their shot and solicits them to play lovers. Later, when their relationship is poised to reach further levels of intimacy, an off-screen sexual assault is tackily used as a plot mechanism to bind the two in shared emotional damage. These plot developments grate largely because of how much of Princess Cyd otherwise gels. Narrative simplicity and low-simmering drama might not always be considered virtues, but here, whenever the plot ever so slightly thickens and the ensemble grows, it’s hardly as revelatory as two people chatting in a backyard.