Slow-motion is employed incessantly throughout “Princess Cyd,” which is apt given the inertia of Stephen Cone’s artificial indie. For his follow-up to 2015’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” the writer-director paints a sketchy portrait of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age while spending a few weeks with her famous aunt, an acclaimed author. Caring more about what its characters represent — and its empathetic representation of them — than about crafting a fully formed drama concerning flesh-and-blood people, Cone’s film has little more than its heart in the right place. Expect scant theatrical traction after the film’s debut at this year’s BAMcinemaFest.
Nine years after an obliquely referenced family tragedy, and following more recent, unspecified turmoil with her father, 16-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) is sent to Chicago to stay with her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a well-known novelist. It’s a conceit that’s hastily established by Cone, who focuses more squarely on the bond that forms between the two women once they’re together. However, after Miranda gives an introductory public speech in which she raises some hazy questions about spirituality, as well as initial conversations between the two during which Cyd keeps rudely interrupting her elder, they both come across as such wooden, off-putting types that their rapport rings false.
While taking a morning jog that Cone shoots in (what else?) slow motion, Cyd gets lost (because, you see, she’s figuratively lost inside). She soon winds up at a coffee shop, where she shares unsubtly charged glances with a mohawked female barista. A second visit full of even broader sighs and bigger relief-filled smiles reveals the barista to be named Katie (Malic White). They soon strike up a budding romance staged as a series of contrivances, the most ridiculous being an arm-in-arm dance they’re asked to perform for a film crew that happens to spy them from across the street, wrongly assuming that they’re a boy and girl.
Back at the house, Cyd engages Miranda about her sexless existence, cajoles her into sunbathing and compels her to consider a more-than-friends relationship with literary pal Anthony (James Vincent Meredith). In these sequences, Cone raises issues about fulfillment, spirituality and societal expectations, but in ways that at once feel forced and tossed off, as if he’s eager to name-check some current topics on his mind but hasn’t figured out a way to properly dramatize them. As such, many of these threads unravel almost as soon as they’re introduced, all so the director might spend more time indulging in clunky and often clichéd scenarios. Those include: Cyd questioning a lesbian couple attending a Miranda shindig about their journey from hetero to same-sex marriage; having a tryst with a hunky local gardener; and rescuing Katie from a creepy housemate, a scene not only haphazardly interjected into the action, but which pulls its punches, lest the film have to actually deal with the ramifications of abuse.
Regardless of the past trauma that both protagonists repeatedly mention, there’s no sense that either Cyd or Miranda have lived lives prior to the start of the film; instead, they come across as merely threadbare constructs. Cone’s depiction of Cyd and Katie’s blossoming amour, as well as their initial sexual experience together, is compassionate, but it often seems as if the director is trying too hard to demonstrate his own (admirable) open-mindedness — an impression acutely felt in his awkward lingering on hands caressing naked bodies, and kisses and pillow talk marked by too-loud-for-anyone’s-good mouth noises.
Pinnick and Spence’s lead performances are earnest and creaky, while the movie’s aesthetics — from a pushy score filled with flutes, guitars, pop singers and hip-hop, to lyrical visuals that call excessive attention to themselves — do little to quell the material’s overarching phoniness. As with a sequence in which Cyd puts her hand around someone’s throat, only to refrain from causing any real harm, “Princess Cyd” proves a bloodless put-on.