In his tranquil drama Princess Cyd, director Stephen Cone seems to be asking the question: What if a movie featured a girl who lived through unthinkable trauma and somehow became the most well-adjusted kid on the planet? The answer is that the story would float along like a feather in the wind — a nice counter to heavier grief dramas — but also never achieve the heights it could if that feather were attached to the hard-working wing of an actual bird. But enough of the ornithology metaphors.
Before we even see Cyd, we hear a 911 call placed by a man who calmly states that people in a house are dead, and that he’s rescued a little girl — his voice sounds more disappointed than shaken. While this plays, we’re shown active, happy high school girls on the soccer field, including sporty teen Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), nine years after her mother’s murder, showing no signs of physical or emotional damage. Cone even goes to great pains to frame this natural strawberry beauty in an angelic crown of light — she is unselfconscious with an easy smile. When she’s sent to live with her sensitive, authoress aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) in Chicago for two weeks, it becomes clear that Cone is setting up Cyd to spread that light wherever she goes. But the director never goes whole hog with his young-meets-old-and-they-both-learn-something story, opting for a subtler odd-couple approach. Sometimes the calm between these two women is realistic. But the director often cops out the second his characters get into messier emotions.
Cyd likes to pepper Miranda with questions, politely but pointedly digging into Miranda’s sex life (or lack thereof) and her spiritual beliefs. “Do you really believe we’re going to see my mom again?” the atheist Cyd says bluntly after one exchange. Unlike most portrayals of teens, Cyd never comes across as malicious with these comments, just filterless and at times tone-deaf. It’s realistic that a girl who was suddenly stripped of her mother may become immune to ideas of authority and speak directly to her aunt as an equal. Cone too often cuts out of uncomfortable scenes, jumping right to the next thing, never letting us see his characters grapple with confrontation.
In one scene, Cyd tells Miranda matter-of-factly that, “If you had sex more, you probably wouldn’t want to eat all the time.” Cone allows Miranda a tame rebuttal monologue in which she espouses on the other pleasures of life — like reading — to set Cyd straight, but he undercuts that work by immediately diverting the story to a totally unrelated and artificial subplot, where Cyd and Miranda must go out into the night to rescue Cyd’s romantic interest, Katie (Malic White).
The rescue, like everything else in this film, is very quiet with not much explanation as to how or why these characters would act as they do. (That vague airiness proves an asset when the story presents Cyd’s burgeoning bisexuality as simply a part of life.) While the chemistry between Pinnick and Spence is sweet and familial, I couldn’t help but think so much of this film is just…nice. It’s that pretty feather you found in the grass. And maybe you’ll take it home, but will likely forget you did.
Directed by Stephen Cone
Opens November 3, Museum of the Moving Image