Filmmaker Stephen Cone’s most recent feature plunges viewers into a dazzling summer in Chicago. The soft-focus photography captures luscious grass, piercing blue skies and vibrant, multicultural neighbourhoods that ooze life and point to an optimistic future for its protagonists. Although, ostensibly, it barely registers as an important event in the film, Princess Cyd takes place during the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election. Watching the film now, this ‘moment-before-the-storm’ is all too clear. A naive innocence permeates both the film’s aesthetics and its narrative, and this obliviousness imbues it with a sense of magic.
The story doesn’t seem to exist in a ‘real’, historical timeline, but, perhaps, in a parallel world – where maybe even the election had a different result. Shot in eighteen days during the summer of 2016, but edited and post-produced into the following spring, the film isn’t necessarily nostalgic for the final months of the Obama administration, but it certainly registers as remarkably hopeful against the despondency of the present day. But this out-of-step perspective only adds to its charm, affirming the film’s queerness and the love and affection shared between its characters.
Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence) is a successful author, who enjoys a mature and spiritual life. She lives alone in the house she grew up in, but socialises frequently with her wide circle of varied friends – some religious, some from academia, and a smattering of old family friends from her local neighbourhood. Miranda’s life is comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. She hasn’t been close enough to anybody recently for them to challenge her values, and she’s slipping further away from the corporeal into her intellectual and spiritual contemplations.
Swathed in dark or neutral clothing, she is often photographed under dappled lighting that obscures her pale skin and face. Her equally-neutral home seems to be absorbing her whole, and Miranda’s body feels like an absence onscreen. She claims she doesn’t even own a bathing suit and that she hasn’t had sex in five years. After dedicating her life to exploring her mind and soul, she’s wilfully neglected her body to pursue the things she believes she enjoys most.
When her teenage niece, Cyd Loughlin (Jessie Pinnick), arrives for the summer, Cyd’s infectious lust for life disrupts her aunt’s carefully-balanced routine. Unlike Miranda, Cyd wears bright clothing (including light denim, short shorts), and does not enjoy reading. Her boisterous atheism and love of football and sunbathing are the opposite of Miranda’s Lutheran, interior lifestyle, but the pair begin to connect over Cyd’s mother, who passed away when Cyd was little. As the days advance, Miranda considers herself and her choices in comparison to Cyd, whilst her niece undertakes how own journey of self-discovery to find who she is.
Miranda may resist carnal desires in favour of classic literature, but Cyd never doubts her impulses when there is so much to explore – especially with interest from coffeeshop employee, Katie (Malic White) and Miranda’s neighbour, Ridley (Matthew Quattrocki). Both aunt and niece are distinctly individualistic and actively resist being pigeonholed, but they are able to offer one another profound insights they cannot gain on their own.
When Cyd asks Miranda to put sunscreen on her back, her aunt balks at the idea. She is uncomfortable at the sight of Cyd’s bare skin, but she tentatively and tenderly applies the cream anyway. Afterwards, the residue from the sunscreen agitates Miranda’s fingers. It is not only an unwanted intrusion, something she is not used to (like Cyd herself), but a trace reminder of the intimate, physical exchange, preserved on her own skin.
Despite her initial discomfort, this experience awakens a more physical side of Miranda. Just as the cream soaks into her skin and Cyd settles into her home, so Miranda gradually becomes conscious of her own physicality and lovingly embraces her niece. As she peers out of her window to see Cyd sunbathing, she wistfully mutters, “Once upon a time,” whilst touching her own body through her clothes. Confronted with Cyd’s youthful and inquisitive body, Miranda is suddenly aware of her own materiality, even if she’s not quite ready to act upon it.
But Princess Cyd is not interested in finding definitives or conclusions. Instead, the film suggests it’s a completely personal and private choice whether you wish to explore your sexuality and get to know your body (as most teenagers do) or if you prefer intellectual pleasures. It’s human to have antithetical dreams, hopes and wishes, and to change your mind. The brash confidence of youthful wisdom is just a phase – nobody should, or does, have all of the answers – but maybe the nagging doubt of age should be banished, too.
In a film filled with so many beautifully soft and calming colours, the colour palette reflects the philosophy: there is no black and white, there is no right and wrong, there is no science vs. religion. Everything is fluid and changeable. The film finds humanity and compassion wherever it looks, and that feels wonderfully queer in today’s divisive society. Moreover, it is an exceptionally strong and defiant message of hope in otherwise dark times.