If I tell you the premise of Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd, you’ll think it’s every other lesbian movie you’ve ever seen, which is kind of true. “Rambunctious teenage girl moves in with her Christian aunt and discovers she’s not straight after she meets a barista with an alternative lifestyle haircut” is pretty much its own queer film genre at this point. So yes, you know this story — but you’ve never been told this story this way before. Princess Cyd isn’t interested in the well-worn plot of queer sexual awakening, the torture of figuring out who you are and the fraught path you have to follow to let other people in on your secret. In fact, Princess Cyd isn’t really interested in plot (or secrets) at all. It’s a character study of two women who clumsily and gently brush up against each other and find new happiness because of it. In the process one of them simply realizes she likes girls.
Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is a 16-year-old soccer star who lives in South Carolina with her depressed dad. Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence) is a middle-aged writer who lives in Chicago and moves around literary circles where she’s a star. When Cyd’s mom/Miranda’s sister died, the two of them became estranged. Cyd’s never had a mom and Miranda’s never had a kid. What Cone adds to this trite formula is grace. I don’t mean elegance; I don’t mean charm. I mean charis, that Biblical concept of grace that encompasses kindness and gratitude and favor all at once.
Cone has made a name for himself in film critic circles writing tender-hearted coming of age stories that probe the intersection of faith and sexuality. Princess Cyd is his most generous and mature exploration of those themes. Miranda is a devout Christian, but she’s not dogmatic. She finds joy in her religion, in her worship, in her fellowship — and she uses the mysteries of Christianity as a springboard to explore the other puzzles of the universe, in her own mind and in her writing. When Cyd tells Miranda about the queer barista, there’s no hand-wringing on either of their parts about God. Their only confrontation over religion comes when Cyd asks Miranda if she really believes in a heaven where they’ll both see her mom again.
The queer barista, Katie, is also refreshing. Again, you know the type: mohawk, half-smirk, boots and a short-sleeved button-up with the sleeves cuffed just so. No plan really, just wandering. You see Katie and you think Shane, Shane, Shane — but that’s not it. Katie isn’t aloof or rapacious. Katie isn’t interested in proving anything about Cyd to Cyd. Katie is warm and curious and open and brave with her heart without being reckless. It’s Cyd who kisses Katie first, Cyd who crawls on top of Katie, Cyd who presses for more and then more. Cyd who asks to borrow Katie’s tux and wears it without a hint of self-consciousness to her aunt’s soiree.
No one’s pushing labels on anyone in Princess Cyd either, which feels just right in a movie that’s mostly just pondering. When a film crew mistakes Katie for a boy and Cyd relays the story to Miranda, her aunt shrugs and says maybe Katie is a boy. (Katie is played by Malic White, who told Metro Weekly this summer that they have been “identifying as some kind of trans for a very long time.”) Cyd herself is equally interested in Katie and the gardener son of a lesbian couple who are good friends of Miranda’s, but she never starts to wonder if she should call herself bisexual or pansexual or a lesbian or what. Despite Cyd’s constant needling about it, Miranda isn’t interested in having a boyfriend or even sex and when Cyd pushes too far one night, Miranda explains to her that everyone has their own joy and for some people that joy is sex but for her it’s reading and writing and worship and connecting deeply with her friends in emotional and intellectual ways. She doesn’t call herself asexual, but the hints of it are there. It’s all just so very fluidly and unapologetically queer.
The film isn’t without its flaws. There are easily avoidable plot contrivances, a wildly unnecessary near-sexual assault storyline, and a moment near the end where the filmmaker doesn’t trust his own vision and voice enough to tell this story without putting a stand-in male character into the story to talk about men appreciating complicated women. When you consider those missteps woven into the larger fabric of the film, they’re conspicuous but not defeating.
Princess Cyd has made so many best of film lists, which makes perfect sense to me. In a time of unmitigated chaos, perpetual revelations of horrifying behavior, and a fracturing faith in humanity, Princess Cyd is quiet almost to the point of stillness and deeply generous. It believes women will heal each other and their communities. It hopes. And as 2017 draws to a close, I think we could all use a little more of that.
Princess Cyd is now available on Amazon.