Early in Princess Cyd, the latest feature from indie filmmaker Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), a 16-year-old girl from North Carolina, looks around the bedroom she’ll be using while staying with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence) in Chicago. Miranda points out that one particular area of the room makes for an excellent reading nook, thanks to the light that streams in the window every morning. “Oh, I don’t really read,” Cyd replies, grimacing slightly. She then pulls out her smartphone and asks whether the house has wi-fi. Turns out it does. The network is named RalphWaldo. Password is Hawthorne1850.
That clash of sensibilities is as close as this exceedingly, almost perversely sweet-tempered movie gets to a significant conflict. Miranda, we soon learn, is a well-known author, famous enough to be approached in restaurants by fans seeking autographs. She’s apparently had little or no contact with her niece since a family tragedy nine years earlier (the details of which are withheld for a big monologue toward the film’s end), but is eager to make up for lost bonding time. And bond these two women proceed to do, with only some occasional mild awkwardness. Cyd asks Miranda blunt questions about her spiritual beliefs and (nonexistent) love life, and inspires her to sunbathe in the backyard. Miranda reciprocates by introducing Cyd to Chicago’s literary community and getting her at least marginally interested in the printed word. Nothing earth-shaking happens, although Cyd does fall for a local barista, Katie (Malic White), and asks Miranda exactly how lesbian sex works. Her aunt is no help, alas. “You’re gonna have to Google that.”
Cone attempts to walk a very thin line here between admirably low-key and maddeningly bland, mostly landing on the right side of it. He frequently lets his actors perform uninterrupted at length, shooting them from a distance and tracking in slowly; they reward the attention with intricately detailed work that makes tiny shifts in perspective feel momentous. Spence, in particular, nails the slight self-consciousness with which professional writers choose their words even in casual conversation, and makes Miranda seem flummoxed but not threatened by Cyd’s youthful impetuousness. (In addition to romancing Katie, Cyd also has a spontaneous fling with a guy during a salon that Miranda hosts at the house every other Friday.) The film’s refusal to sensationalize can be a tonic: Katie boasts an androgynous look (complete with mohawk), but when she’s mistaken for a boy at one point, it’s no big deal—indeed, Katie uses the error as an excuse to cozy up to Cyd, accelerating what had until then been a rather snail-paced courtship.
At the same time, though, it’s possible to take this sort of restraint too far. Princess Cyd remains pitched at the same gently understanding level throughout, and the film really could have used at least one or two seismic disturbances, if only to vary the rhythm. The decision to open the movie with audio from a 911 call, related to the family tragedy, seems designed to inject a degree of suspense, or at least some mystery, lest things seem overly subdued. Mostly, though, it just creates expectations that are left unfulfilled, by suggesting much more lingering trauma than these well-adjusted characters ultimately demonstrate. Cone does make one stab at overt drama—Katie gets sexually assaulted by a friend of her brother’s, which results in her briefly staying at Miranda’s—but the incident (which occurs off screen) is smoothed over and forgotten so quickly that it’s almost as if it never happened. Even the moment that explains the word “princess” in the title is oddly underwhelming, relying as it does on the implausible notion that Cyd would be unaware of having been named after one of her aunt’s books. So many movies are all sizzle and no steak; it’s kind of refreshing, in a way, to be frustrated by all steak and no sizzle.