Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Princess Cyd

  


Director Stephen Cone on the set with producer Grace Hahn



    

PRINCESS CYD                   B+                  
USA  (96 mi)  2017 d:  Stephen Cone

This is an atypical coming-of-age tale that cleverly entwines youthful exploration with what normally passes for a midlife crisis, though in this near idyllic setting of neighborhood Chicago there is a pungent smell of sweetness that seems to define life for both young and old, providing an exuberantly optimistic view about the unfolding challenges that await us at every stage, and while there’s no overwhelming dramatic issues, this is a small gem of a film that explores the intricacies of daily living, finding pleasures in tiny details often overlooked, offering a surprising amount of probing intelligence in such a brief period of time.  Winner of the Chicago Award at the Chicago Film Festival in 2017, the director is a professor at Northwestern University who is a transplant from South Carolina with a religious upbringing, raised by a Southern Baptist pastor father, where an understated morality pervades, but it’s more new age, with an accent on tolerance and love, which apparently starts with accepting yourself.  These parameters are open for exploration throughout, never rigidly fixed, but the openness of this gentle Rohmeresque journey is simply sublime.  Opening with a 911 call, an unseen tragedy occurs, the full extent of which we don’t realize until near the end, with the film picking up in an aftermath 9-years later as we are introduced to a survivor from that incident, 16-year old freckle-faced Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) making her presence felt on the soccer field in Columbia, South Carolina.  A call is made by her exasperated single father (her mother killed in the opening) to an aunt in Chicago, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), who still lives in the same home where she (and her sister) grew up, proposing Cyd spend a few weeks in the summer paying a visit, suggesting the change would do her good.  And just like that, Cyd arrives at Miranda’s door, offered the same room that was her mother’s, pointing out there’s a nice reading area, but Cyd bluntly responds, “I don’t read,” asking instead for the Wi-Fi codes (which have literary references, of course), immediately hooking up on the Internet.  We soon learn Miranda is an accomplished writer of several books, famous enough to be recognized in public, with strangers coming up to her asking for autographs, where her literary background is her career, with a social life built around readings and academia, which seems to be the farthest thing from Cyd’s mind.  Instead she goes out for a morning run, stopping at a local coffee shop afterwards asking for directions, where she happens to run into Katie (Malic White), a boyish looking tomboy wearing an androgynous Mohawk strip that catches her eye.

Meanwhile, Miranda is reviewing the work of a striving first-time novelist, Anthony (James Vincent Meredith), a handsome black man separated from his wife, where throughout the film there are implied innuendo’s about a developing relationship, but she’s all business, offering an extremely critical assessment that would have him discard nearly two-thirds of what he’s written, which comes as a bit of a shock for Anthony, who’s not sure what to make of this excoriation, obviously invested in the material he’s written.  Cyd arrives back home at the tail end of the discussion and after a quick shower, heads into the back yard to lie in the sun.  What’s of interest here is not what’s happening, but the reactions to what’s happening, as the director is carefully illuminating internalized characterization through subtle differences that are not entirely off-putting, but noticeable, even at times jarring, suggesting these small events have profound effects in the trajectories of our lives.  Cyd’s interest in sunbathing piques the interest of Miranda, as that’s not something she’d dream of doing herself, but she’s curious about the things that Cyd likes, perhaps retracing her own adolescence, though her interactions with Cyd thus far have been awkward at best.  Cyd’s free-spirited and open acceptance of her own body is probably the exact opposite of how Miranda felt at that age, safely retreating into introspection, while Cyd simply blurts out whatever she thinks or feels, often uncomfortably, but her honesty, and the film’s awareness of it, feels like a breath of fresh air, as it’s heartwarming to see a relatively happy teenager, even though the backdrop of her story is so traumatizing.  Within a day or so, Miranda is in the backyard with Cyd sunning herself as well, like a girl bonding experience, when Cyd calls out the obvious, asking when the last time was when she had sex.  For Cyd, this is at the forefront of her curiosity, while in Miranda’s repressed world of academia, this thought has been sealed off in mothballs, completely off limits, as if in quarantine.  Just this simple question, however, has reverberations, as it means something so completely different to each one at the differing stages of their lives.  Thankfully, no judgments are made, as this kind of honest and open inquisitiveness is a central thread of the film, as a novelist with any skill applies this same process to themselves, constantly internalizing their thoughts in search of new ideas. 

When Cyd returns to the coffee shop, she and Katie have an instant chemistry, perfectly expressed on a rooftop setting where a film crew shooting nearby calls out for them to slow dance and pretend they’re in love, mistaking them for a girl and boy, which the couple doesn’t correct, going with the flow.  When Katie recognizes one of Miranda’s books, describing it as an influence, suddenly her aunt doesn’t seem so distant, growing more curious about her.  Miranda’s life revolves around literary social gatherings, something rarely seen in films, causing Cyd to search through Katie’s wardrobe to find something to wear, settling on a tuxedo outfit worn to the prom, allowing Cyd to make an impressive entrance, easily a focus of interest, as she’s the youngest thing there, where the interaction with others is strangely forward, yet revealing, particularly when she asks an older lesbian couple how they discovered they liked women, a question obviously dominating her own mindset, but the playful interchange grows humorous, with the adults turning the tables, asking what she likes, hesitating a bit before stammering, “I like everything.”  While still processing her burgeoning sexuality, the evening focuses upon readings, where we hear the voices of Emily Dickenson or James Joyce, or described personal experiences that may actually be a bit of living fiction, remaining ambiguous whether or not they actually happened, which adds to the curiosity surrounding the personal nature of the material.  Like any teenager, she soon grows tired of listening, preferring to retreat into her bedroom with the youngest boy there to smoke pot and make out, with more likely to happen had they not been interrupted by his parents who were leaving, wondering what happened to him.  There’s a beautiful monologue by Miranda afterwards, clarifying her own sense of personal autonomy, suggesting it doesn’t revolve around men or a relationship, that she’s perfectly comfortable in her own skin, where one of the joys of her life is spending hours reading Melville or Virginia Woolf, or talking endlessly discussing T.S. Eliot or James Baldwin with a friend.  The gist of it is that no one way is the right way, that everyone’s experiences are unique, leaving the road to happiness wide open, where there are no rules.  As the evening winds down, Cyd finally contacts Katie, who’s been attacked by one of her male roommates who remains passed out in a drunken stupor, not wanting to be there when he wakes up.  Miranda goes into protective mode, sheltering the girl from the storm, which opens another door for the two girls to finally explore, all shot with a poetic sensibility.  One of the strengths of the film is the complexity of the female characters, who are extremely well developed, surrounding them with secondary characters that are equally fascinating, continually probing at what’s underneath the surface, becoming a delicate journey of self-discovery. 

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