There is a particular way that teenage girls are imagined in cinema: situated in seemingly endless summers, they waft about bare-legged on the boundary between youthful innocence and sexual awakening. In the soft-focused, slow-motion-saturated world of the coming-of-age girl, there is often a discomforting tendency towards voyeurism, writ large in films like Larry Clark’s Kids, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and, of course, American Beauty. Even in this year’s commercially palatable horror, It, the sole female member of the Loser’s Club is subjected to more intrusive close-ups than any other character.
Princess Cyd both does and does not conform to these tropes. Although Cyd, the film’s young protagonist (played by Jessie Pinnick), spends large amounts of the film laid out in a red bikini or twirling on a washed out, hazily shot beach with the accompaniment of a sufficiently twee backing track, she is much more than this. Sent to Chicago for the summer with her aunt Miranda, a prestigious author played by the brilliant Rebecca Spence, Cyd is exposed to a literary environment quite unlike the usual setting of a coming-of-age film. To place Cyd within such a world does not seem false or inauthentic, but rather the marriage between the two spheres – academia and the concerns of youth – is executed brilliantly. At her aunt’s sophisticated literary soirée, one of Miranda’s many bohemian intellectual friends asks Cyd “what are you into?” Boldly dressed in an elaborate tuxedo that is wonderfully inappropriate for the event, Cyd replies, “everything”. There is nothing tentative about Cyd’s experimentations. The older academics find her candidness charming and enlightening, the encounter between age and experience proving fertile ground for an interchange of ideas and perspectives. Miranda is also an immensely rich and sympathetic character, navigating between loneliness and an intellectual assuredness that only comes with age. Stephen Cone, the writer and director of Princess Cyd, bases her on the Pulitzer prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose Presbyterian upbringing, which bleeds into her own writing, mirrors the emphasis on religion in Cone’s films that he attributes to his Preacher father. In one especially satisfying scene, Miranda frankly suggests that her male friend scrap an entire section of his novel due to its philosophical pretensions, leaving him dumbfounded.
Despite all three of his most recent films telling coming-of-age stories, Cone claims to have no “overt interest” in the genre; rather, he seeks to explore “where identity comes from and the shift in people”. And, certainly, the philosophical inquiries that Cone weaves into the narrative allow his characters to transcend the more vapid concerns of stock coming-of-age figures, whilst also retaining a degree of naivety and gentleness. Much of the film seems to revolve around the question of what fulfilment is. Miranda and Cyd approach this question from discrete perspectives that further betray their difference in age – Cyd is of the body, Miranda the spirit. After an argument concerning Cyd’s failure to understand her aunt’s lengthy sexual dry spell, Miranda tells her, “we are different shapes and different ways” – reading and religion give her the same pleasure that Cyd is just beginning to experience through her body. Midway through her aunt’s reading of an indulgently long passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Nature’, Cyd leaves the room in order to kiss and smoke pot with the only other young person at the party.
The relationship that emerges between the two women is nuanced and deeply felt. As the story progresses, Miranda and Cyd learn to see each other’s shapes and ways. Miranda finds herself more comfortable in her own skin, proudly telling Cyd that she too spent the day “laid out” in a swimming costume on the lawn without becoming ashamed and self-conscious, while Cyd begins to appreciate her aunt’s work and re-discover the joy and security of having a mother figure in her life (her own mother, Miranda’s sister, died when she was much younger). At Miranda’s literary talk, Cyd brims with pride; when she stands to ask a question, “What’s your favourite thing in life?”, the unspoken interaction between them is one of two people who care for one another immensely, before Miranda irreverently answers, “cake” – a private joke between them that expresses how their understanding of one another has developed.
Parallel to her burgeoning relationship with her aunt, Cyd also befriends another teenager, mohawked barista Katie, and the two tentatively begin to explore their sexuality together. At one point, while standing on a roof together talking about the future, Cyd asks Katie what she wants to do with her life, to which she replies “I don’t have a fucking clue”, before pausing, “I don’t wanna rush anything”. Next, a film crew shooting a few roofs down interrupts the pair. They mistake Katie for a boy and ask the two girls to slow dance and “pretend they’re in love” in the back of their shot. Giggling together, the two girls perform for the filmmaker without correcting his error. In this way, Cone seems to gesture towards the more obvious coming-of-age film that he could have made: an unthinking portrayal of teenage sexuality that does not go deeper than a first, cursory glance.
Unlike some glossy, veneered coming-of-age films, Princess Cyd is imperfect. In its latter parts the pacing occasionally falters and there is never quite the expected crescendo to the narrative, which may in part be due to the fact that Cone has stated that he favours mood over action in his films. This becomes part of its appeal. Cone’s latest film does not aspire to say huge things, but it is a generous, warm and emotionally intelligent portrayal of female friendship across ages.