Anyone who spends much time at the movies can become so accustomed to the Hollywood three-act structure that they don’t even notice how entries of all genres start to bleed together into a single, predictable blur. So, it’s indescribably refreshing when a film comes along that has a little faith in its audience. Never feeling the need to lead its viewer by the hand, Princess Cyd allows its universe to unfold in a naturalistic way that is anything but garden-variety.
Thinking it will do her good to expand her horizons and leave South Carolina for the summer, sixteen-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is sent by her father to stay with her estranged aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), an esteemed novelist living in Chicago. While in the city, Cyd meets a young barista (Malic White) and sparks immediately fly. The sincere and charming coming-of-age story takes time to explore the various branches of the path to self-discovery.
From a distance, Princess Cyd feels like run-of-the-mill Sundance fodder, but it is not nearly as formulaic as you might expect from its premise. There’s never really a huge, overwhelming conflict; the film just takes an ant farm approach to watching its characters live out their lives. Our protagonist is exploring the confines of her blossoming sexuality, and in doing so, she is beginning her search for her place in the world. It is fitting that Cyd is bisexual, a label that is rarely given its cinematic due, at least not without a heaping dose of judgment. She is a complex character, capable of displaying seemingly contrasting traits, and the film allows her to make decisions that go against her best interest without making her any less sympathetic for doing so.
Although it’s being marketed as a LGBTQ love story, that aspect is really only a subplot attached to the tale of Cyd’s relationship with her aunt. As the two women find themselves under the same roof, they get to know one another, often butting heads in the process. The biggest hurdle for each character to climb is learning how to reconcile their conflicting ideologies. The moment that Cyd implies the pity she takes on her aunt, it is immediately shut down with a moving, marvelously delivered monologue about the priority of individuality, which surprisingly never turns corny.
Director Stephen Cone’s (The Wise Kids, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party) minimalist leanings remind the audience to enjoy the little things, but he has miraculously found a way of doing so without coming off as disingenuous. In what is arguably Princess Cyd’s crowning achievement in narrative dexterity, there is a tender, understated scene in which a group of academic-minded friends drink wine and exchange excerpts from James Joyce and Emily Dickinson. It is a moment entirely removed from the story at large, and yet it is able to photograph genuine pleasure from all of its characters. The scene is simple enough, but it is the best argument to date that Cone feels a personal attachment to the inhabitants of the world he creates.
While it certainly loses steam when it stretches its reach toward something grander, Princess Cyd is at its best when it focuses on the guileless intricacies of the human personality. All three of the major players weave past our initial expectations, tearing through our preconceived notions with their dazzling complexities. There should be more movies that follow this model.