Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone has made a career studying characters who feel unwilling to know themselves, and often unwilling to truly know each other. There are frank, obvious truths abounding all around Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (BAMcinemaFest 2015), mostly involving the characters’ sexual identities, that feel undeniable to us as viewers and spectators, but which they cover up with the faintest of disguises. What made that film such a stunning powder keg of sensual detail was how impossible it was to hold up those veneers under the scrutiny of over twenty ideologically distinctive, universally curious individuals. With so many different tastes and beliefs in one intimate environment, long-fostered beliefs are bound to be challenged to their potential breaking point.
At the start of Cone’s latest, Princess Cyd, the characters aren’t necessarily hiding from themselves, though their tastes and identities have yet to be questioned by an incisive counterpart. In this way it’s less a story of self-discovery as it is a genuine, and generous, two-handed character study, revealing the ways two emotionally distant relatives come to question, unpeel and glean thoughts and experiences from one another. It’s an active dialogue, the goal of every artist, made visible both in the film’s themes and within its characters.
The central non-titular character, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence, absolutely extraordinary), is both a notable author and something of a voice for Cone’s own artistic sentiments and ideals. When she’s work-shopping a friend’s novel, discussing a desire for moments and characters breathe, it resonates as a mission statement for Princess Cyd. Just as Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party felt like an intricate chemical reaction, so tight, specific and emotionally infinite, Princess Cyd is unfurled through gracious long takes, patiently allowing the characters to navigate the frame, or the plants and trees to vibrate and rustle freely and naturally. It’s a film as much conjured from brilliantly conducted human-scale set-pieces as it is from charmingly stumbled upon moments.
“Sounds like fantasy.” So responds Miranda’s niece, Cyd (vibrant discovery Jessie Pinnick), when her aunt explains her new book’s metaphysical themes. 16-years-old and only a day into a two week summer visit to Chicago, Cyd’s flippant dismissal of her aunt’s story feels typical of her over-confident, yet unformed, perspective. Wheneever she describes the world and people she left behind, though, they’re simply “fine”, the stiffening death of passion. Settling into her deceased mom’s childhood room, though, she does start to seem like something of a fairy tale princess, wandering through blissful garden pathways, happening inexplicably upon a copy of her aunt’s book, and jogging against the serene backdrop of the city. The visual language of an ethereal escape is all around her, beckoning an exploration of sort.
Most queer coming-of-age stories would dwell on the questioning girl’s resistance to diving in to new experiences, but Cyd, refreshingly, is a great deal more socially ambitious and adventurous than her introduction suggests. We’re all only as dull and typical as our surroundings encourage us to be, and Cyd’s exploration prompts her to engage both intellectually with her aunt and emotionally with a local gender-queer “girl” Katie (a spirited Malic White). Miranda’s contemplative nature rubs off on Cyd, and Cyd’s bold sexuality and inquisitive spirit lead to her learning more about the comfy worldview of her deceased mother’s sister. It’s the kind of receptive relationship that ought to rub off on audiences, who may feel the irresistible urge to lay out on the grass in their bathing suits when they get home.
The already lovely exchange of literary, sexual and spiritual interests and adorable flirtation between Cyd and Katie becomes both thrilling and wrenching when we get to the film’s climactic literary soiree. Cyd’s borrowed outfit for the affair is the film’s most sheer delight, a sleek, stunning subversion of her already radiant sense of gender identity. The party itself is just as rich an arena for intellectual discourse, until a tossed-off, but harmful joke from Cyd sends us into the film’s defining moment; a monologue where Miranda airs out both her appreciation for her niece’s vibrant influence and her valid irritation at the standards Cyd tries to impose upon her. “I got a quarter of a century on a ya, Cyd,” she says with both patience and defiance to a girl who’s still a bit too cocky to accept others’ standards for happiness.
To dip even further into the night’s startling and shocking adventures would spoil the fun of discovery. Needless to say Cone puts Cyd and her budding summer family in some challenging environments and discoveries that uncover long ignored feelings of trauma from her childhood. “Anyway, that’s my story,” she says closing out a small, but beautifully mediated scene between her and Katie. At our hardest, most vulnerable moments, sometimes all we need is someone to tell our story to. It may not be much. There may not be a clear theme or point to it, but it’s vital to express, and Cyd herself discovers the impact a resonant story can leave on someone’s life.
A miraculous feat of non-romantic chemistry, Jessie Pinnick and Rebecca Spence are a stunningly fresh match against each other. Pinnick’s blunt, cutting gaze has a way of taking down anyone in her path, but Spence has her own kind of trained, solidified guard, taking every experience that comes her way and not mourning too much for those that don’t. Zoe White’s patient, insightful lensing, in particular, does a lovely job displaying both their initial distance and detachment and their growing intimacy. As Princess Cyd heads into its final stretch, the ache of a newly strong, meaningful dynamic possibly drifting away starts haunting us. Does Cyd’s newly ignited bond with Miranda and blazing relationship with Katie endure beyond this bright, brief trip. “Maybe so.” Not for sure, but the hope is there.