Have you ever experienced a quiet, selfless moment of peace with someone you care about that seems boundless and out-of-this-world? Not that neurotic kind of affection that we call love, but rather a warm space that needs nothing and gracefully offers everything to the other person. If you have, Stephen Cone’s brilliant 2017 drama film will remind you of what that feels like. If you haven’t, you’ll be dying to re-watch Princess Cyd just so you can get another glimpse of this unique and humbling feeling.
Cyd Loughlin (Jessie Pinnick) is a freckled, carefree teenager who has just lost her brother and mother to suicide. Facing the darker aspects of the human mind head-on, the 16-year-old girl now has to move to Chicago and is more or less forced to live with her aunt, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence) for three weeks. The latter is a renowned novelist who is not only a bookworm, but a celibate as well. Yet, she is also an experienced and eloquent Christian with intriguing insights about spirituality and sexuality, making her far more complex than your stereotypical literary “nerd”.
The two women’s first encounter is blunt, campy and uncomfortable. Like a bull in a China shop, Cyd assaults her female relative with gutsy questions about her sex life and prolonged abstinence. As an open-minded young girl who “likes everything”, the teenager is as surprised to find out Miranda doesn’t really have sex as her aunt is to learn that she “doesn’t really read”. Cyd can’t quite wrap her head around the idea of a sex strike and quickly assails the woman with judgments and glary, contrived looks (not unlike the viewers themselves). What follows is Cone’s genius and Spence’s undiluted on-screen brilliance as Miranda goes into an almost-soliloquy about fulfilment, societal norms and embracing life in all of its forms. It is at this moment that the director’s maturity and his entire project with this film are revealed – Cone stunningly depicts the alchemy of suffering, showing his viewers that you can work through pain and trauma and still be happy to be alive and fully immersed in living. That you can take the misery out of a past event, however negative, and transmute it into meaning, courage and goodness. All of this in the context of human relationships and primarily the interactions between women.
A lot is condensed in Princess Cyd’s modest 90 minutes, which inevitably leads to some loose ends in terms of narrative plot. There is not much closure in Cyd’s relationship with Katie Sauter (Malic White), the hearty, Mo-hawked barista from the local coffee shop. There is an instance of attempted sexual assault that is not explicitly and thoroughly pondered. The death of Cyd’s mother and Miranda’s sister and its effects on the two women’s lives are never discussed. But this is not an act of avoidance on Cone’s part. His movie is not meant to deny the adversity, cruelty and misfortunes of life, but instead to see if we can somehow gracefully slip through the cracks of time untarnished and grateful for what we do have and for being able to experience anything at all, even pain. In addition, the film’s focus is invariably on its characters and their internal development, not so much on their external circumstances. It is hard to imagine a more lively, sublime and intricate pair of lead performances for this year’s LGBT cinema than that of Rebecca Spence and Jessie Pinnick.
A vast majority of movies today focus on what’s wrong with the world. The social injustice, the savagery people treat each other with, the grief of losing loved ones or your own identity, the insanity of the human race. Liberating and cathartic, this type of cinema is definitely useful in forcing us to recognize our shortcomings and how we can do better, but it rarely works well for making us feel less miserable about ourselves and the world while we are actively trying to change it. Cone’s film is meek, irenic and sincere. It doesn’t push a certain agenda onto the viewer, it doesn’t intrude on the characters after they are introduced and it doesn’t favor or side with one perspective or another. It is simple, yet powerful. It acknowledges trauma, societal expectations and the evil of the world, but it chooses to raise above it, to go beyond it. Not in a cliché, immature way, but in a very real and meaningful way, that causes you to question whether or not feeling miserable should really be part of the process of change, if you already know the direction you’re heading in and are taking the necessary steps to get there.