Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Tale of Summer: PRINCESS CYD

They have great tragedy in their pasts, but it does not define them. They have clear differences in personality and perspective, yet they reach out in earnest yearning for connection anyway. They are in tremulous liminal spaces, where routine softly slides into a momentary emotional and intellectual softening, where relationships are forged and life’s joys can be, however fleetingly, shared. This is Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd, a movie about a 16-year-old soccer player from South Carolina (Jessica Pinnick, sunnily inhabiting a particularly adolescent ability to be shy and confident in the same moment) who uses her summer to visit the Chicago home of her novelist aunt (Rebecca Spence, easily into the rhythms of a person who spends most of her time with her own thoughts). Cone, whose previous feature was the similarly lovely indie Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, crafts an intimate, sensitive dual portrait of these women as they enter into a dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, with each other over the course of their weeks together. His screenplay marries an open and engaged discourse – the sort of flowing, beautifully ordinary and rigorously intelligent language of a fine playwright – with a soft and supple eye for detail – the kind of attuned observation you’d find in the most perceptive and subtle of short stories. There’s a sense that these are real people in a film that never stoops to reduce them to easily digestible didactic drama.

This gives the film not only a literary quality that matches the author character who holds half of its interest, but bolsters the contrasts between the women. When they first meet, hesitant family defrosting after nearly a decade apart, they hardly know where to begin. “How are books and stuff?” the teenager asks. When her aunt begins to tell her about her latest novel, then catches herself from divulging too much lest she spoil it, her niece casually – unknowingly cruelly – cuts in with an “oh, I won’t read it.” The older woman is in her head, living with literature and ideas, while the younger one lives embodied in her physicality, exercised, athletic, curious about what she can make her body do and feel. They have different approaches to pleasure and to their sense of self, and so too does the film. Cone holds this tension in the screenplay’s deft turns and in cinematographer Zoe White’s frames of sunny beauty, catching with deliberate off-handedness the features of their faces, bodies, clothes, neighborhood, friends and interests. There’s a touch of Rohmer in this beautifully contained, yet rich and full, meeting, of small ordinary shifts in perception, subtle moves between individuals pushing and pulling, closing gaps of empathy and opening new wounds. This is a movie so humane it’s full to the brim with compassion for its characters. It realizes a person is a work in progress, and watches lovingly as two very different women are changed in some small measure by their encounter with the other. They do not have lessons to learn, so much as they end the film with the small possibility of new, positive growth.

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