You get to see where your mom came from.
Tragedies are never isolated incidents with a single victim, perpetrator, and survivor left to remember (or forget) what happened. Oftentimes those roles expand to encompass multiple parties or even overlap in ways that let blame, hate, and forgiveness coexist. This scenario is only rendered truer when it comes to a family ordeal, when those now gone leave a permanent void never to be filled again. And while we cope for a time—telling ourselves we’ve gotten over what happened to the point of moving on—something occurs to remind us of the pain and uncertainty. It exposes our universal penchant for avoidance, of ignoring the problem rather than confronting it in a way that brings closure. Suddenly we realize we must go back in order to go forward.
This sort of emotional story isn’t unique unto itself. One could give plenty of examples wherein the propulsion of a book or film is fueled by a showdown with the past. The same could be said for coming-of-age dramas focused upon experimenting teens searching for their path amongst a homogenized existence rife with cliché. So credit must be given to writer/director Stephen Cone for the way in which he combines both premises for his latest film Princess Cyd. He provides a tragedy unseen (the assumedly gruesome murder of a woman and at least one other person while a young girl sleeps upstairs) before whisking us away nine years later to reveal the lingering effects those impacted still battle. There’s ultimately no better weapon than knowing you aren’t alone.
For the first time since the funeral that young girl (Jessie Pinnick‘s now sixteen-year old Cyd Loughlin) and her aunt (Rebecca Spence‘s sister of the deceased, Miranda Ruth) meet, the circumstances stemming from an untenable situation at home between the girl and her father. The years have separated them with distance and life itself, Cyd dealing with adolescence in Columbia, South Carolina with her single dad while Miranda grew her already famed career as a novelist back in Chicago. They carried on without much thought of the other, the painful memories of what happened erasing history that remained intact along with that which didn’t. One’s outlet for grief and confusion was a rebellious, argumentative streak. The other’s was religion and her philosophical and spiritual-tinted writing. Neither was enough.
And while these two women are nothing alike—youthful confidence and vigor making Cyd a sexual creature motivated by physical pleasures in a digital era while age and maturity evolved Miranda into a social creature electrified by intellectual discourse and good literature—they are also very much the same. Both find themselves lost in stasis despite neither knowing as much until they’re forced into each other’s lives. If not for Cyd’s father calling Miranda to see if she’d take her off his hands for a couple of weeks, the teen would have kept moving forward along her volatile and potentially destructive path. If not for Cyd’s arrival on her aunt’s doorstep, Miranda would have kept blinding herself with routine and modesty. They open each other to necessary possibilities.
They don’t literally push the other towards a new direction or endeavor as much as acknowledge the freedom and drive for happiness they possess as a right outside of social and/or cultural constraints. Whereas Cyd felt like her father didn’t see her as anything but a child who needed to follow his rules, Miranda had reached the point of not seeing herself. So when generic films of this ilk position the adult as authoritarian and kid as brat acting out or the adult as immature facilitator and kid as responsible prop, Cone rejects artificial dichotomies for even-footing. He lets his characters see each other as flawed and in need of worthwhile escape. Theirs becomes an evolved relationship of mutual respect and love—the sister and mother they lost.
So the film is more than just Cyd’s sexual awakening courtesy of tomboy barista Katie Sauter (Malic White). That may be the through-line set-up to move from beginning to end, but it’s just one aspect of many. What really shines is the way in which Cyd and Miranda approach everything that happens in such a short period of time. The latter isn’t trying to be some totalitarian mother figure, chiding her ward as a result of the former’s obvious selfishness, judgmentalism, and overt sexuality. She’s instead using the teen as a mirror with which to expose a part of herself that she locked away. Miranda sees a light in Cyd that reminds her of her late sister, one that should be fostered and embraced rather than stifled.
And while Cyd does see her aunt as a woman in desperate need of breaking out of her shell to act on unrequited emotions towards her friend Anthony (James Vincent Meredith) and shed her conservatism for an afternoon lounging in bathing suits or an evening dressing to the nines, she does it from a place devoid of meanness (despite how mean some of what she says proves). Cyd isn’t one to shy away from awkward or uncensored conversations. She pushes and prods to create a reaction she feels her targets need to wake up to the reality they’re too scared to embrace. But she doesn’t know everything. She isn’t close to perfect either. Cyd merely sees the world through a filter of opportunity rather than improbability.
Their presence in each other’s lives isn’t life-changing—it’s eye-opening. Fear and anxiety will always endure, especially in those who have resigned themselves to a worldview for so long that evolution is a slow if impossible process. But they can still vicariously feel something through the other. Cyd can experience grace and success from her aunt and Miranda can appreciate the abundance of love and empathy within her niece. The former won’t forsake sex for God and the latter won’t risk simple happiness for complex excess, but they will acknowledge how the other can live the way she does without automatically assuming something needs fixing. If anything these two realize their personal insecurities are unwarranted. They move closer to accepting they’re perfectly messy just the way they are.
Where Princess Cyd is at its best is in these realizations. The start can be authentically clunky as Cyd and Miranda feel each other out, interrupting and dismissing with ease due to their surface incompatibilities. But as they interact and expose vulnerabilities, both Pinnick and Spence expertly portray the looks and actions of people peering inside the box. They might not be who the other thinks they should be, but they soon understand they’re exactly who they want to be. So much is said by a smile whether a product of deflection or pure comprehension. Their character growth doesn’t occur because of what the other provides. On the contrary, it happens despite it. They allow each other the room to find themselves, to embrace their freedom to live.