53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #22: “Princess Cyd” (USA)

“Princess Cyd” (USA)
Directed by Stephen Cone

princesscyd_3A wildly successful coming-of-age (& coming-of-middle-age) story set in the bright light of a perfect Northside Chicago summer, “Princess Cyd” is an enjoyable and dense jumble of emotions. More specifically, it is a love-letter to how wordsmiths, whose ability to use words to describe and impart those emotions, can change us forever.

The plot seems basic at first…a teen girl spends a summer at the Chicago home of her aunt, a single and very successful novelist, in a home that also happens to be where her deceased mother grew up. However, from there it diverges in ways that buck the usual “what I did on my summer vacation”. Typically, the antagonist in these tales is represented in the form of the adult. But in “Cyd”, that structure gets enjoyably murky. Both Cyd and her aunt have profound sexual and spiritual awakenings…hence they are each other’s antagonist AND protagonist. In fact, if you were to ask adults what they thought the film was about, I can almost guarantee they would say it is about the aunt, not the girl. Neat balancing act, that.

And 75% of that success is due to Stephen Cone’s script and light-touched direction. Miranda constantly explores, and tries to impart in Cyd how much of life’s emotions lie deep inside the written word…buried in printed pages, waiting to be mined. And even as Cyd chews on these lessons in her developing brain, she proclaims with equal power that it is the experience of emotion that makes it real. A millenial “Paper Chase”, if you will.

But getting away from plot, this is a film as much about the human voice and it’s ability to convey the written word as anything else. Long passages of characters reading stories out loud make up a significant piece of the film, and while that sounds like it might be either pretentious or dull, I assure you it is neither. It is lyrical, poignant and purposeful. And, in addition to Cone’s script, much of that is thanks to the brilliant, mostly Chicago-based cast. Chief among them is Rebecca Spence (Aunt Miranda). While her character’s arc verges on “slice-o-life”, Spence reminds you just how full that slice can be…even if considered tame by others. Her speech about what makes a life spent alone worth living is heartbreaking and empowering (especially for someone like me, who has also remained single and is, somehow, in possession of a full life). And, seemingly right out of a French film, Jessie Pinnick makes her feature debut as the adolescent Cyd. Radiant, innocent, not-so-innocent and constantly curious about her history and her sexuality, she imbues Cyd with a depth of feeling you wouldn’t expect from such an inexperienced actress. The rest of the cast, filled out as it is with Chicago theater vets (including Alma Washington, Oksana Fedunyszyn and Laura Fisher, among others), act as a pseudo Greek chorus throughout, keeping us invested in both the lyrical beauty of the piece, while subtly commenting on the paths of our main characters. Finally, a quick shout out to Neo-Futurist vet, Malic White, whose character could have easily been a side note, a simple ode to the “Grease” plot. But, no, Malic’s performance is invested with emotion, power, vulnerability, sexuality and hetero-normative-induced PTSD. It is an effort worth the price of admission by itself.

I hope I haven’t oversold the film. It has its problems…some of the dialogue verges on creaky, Heather McIntosh’s score didn’t seem to belong to this film (although much of the music is quite good), and Miranda’s arc occasionally feels a bit forced. HOWEVER, this is exactly the kind of American film making that deserves to be seen, supported and allowed to bloom. As John Houseman, the late great star of “The Paper Chase”, would say, “the film has eeeeeeearned it.”

To put a bow on it…”Princess Cyd” is smart, funny, sad, and sexy…and the words sound delicious.

Written on 11/28/2017

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