“I believe in grace,” Miranda (Rebecca Spence) tells her inquisitive niece Cyd (Jesse Pinnick) after searching for the words to describe whether she’s religious or not in “Princess Cyd,” something that may seem elusive when the two haven’t spent any time together in nearly eight years, but is plentiful in the latest feature from writer/director Stephen Cone (“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”). In fact, Miranda’s faith runs deep — still inviting over friends from the church for Second Friday soirees, finding spiritually in not just the Good Book, but many others that run the gamut from Emily Dickinson to James Baldwin that friends recite aloud — while you suspect the 16-year-old Cyd lost hers with the murder of her mother, Miranda’s sister, not thinking much of sneaking out during the special evening to smoke with a neighbor.
Although stunted conversations are par for the course with Cyd’s relatively sudden arrival at Miranda’s doorstep in Chicago, sent by her exasperated father back in South Carolina to spend a few weeks with her aunt, they flow quite naturally in other ways as Cone takes great care in every word spoken between them as they push each other to find their bliss simply by being who they are at different ages and of different temperament. Refreshingly free of the usual crippling self-doubt that sets in in like-minded dramas, particularly when dealing with a teenager’s burgeoning sexuality as “Princess Cyd” does, the two women have considerable conviction despite the shared trauma of the tragic death that connects them. Cone spends precious little time in the past, opening the film with a 9-1-1 call that can only be fully understood as “Princess Cyd” wears on and occasionally stumbling across artifacts around Miranda’s apartment remind of times when things were different. But while they’ve been shaped by a traumatic experience, Miranda and Cyd haven’t let it define them, as Miranda has built an enviable career and community around her, content to live a quiet life alone writing, while Cyd excitedly collects romantic partners and sees her summer in Chicago as a chance to try new things.
The competing impulses lead to sparks in “Princess Cyd,” but not in the way you might think as it becomes more interesting to see how Miranda and Cyd stand their ground on what’s important to them, coming from opposite sides of the time in life they fear getting stuck in their ways, whether it’s Cyd who soon will be sending off college applications or Miranda who has likely put the idea of starting a family of her own behind her. Yet they must extend themselves beyond their comfort zone to forge the personal connections they crave, making the one that begins to form between them the predominant love story of the film, in spite of Cyd becoming attracted to a local barista (Malic White) and nudging Miranda towards turning her friendship with a fellow writer (James Vincent Meredith) into something more serious. The fact that the realization of this particular romance sneaks up on you is a tribute to both Cone’s exquisite ability to build characters and Spence and Pinnick’s beautiful performances, each incredibly rich and thoughtful as you can see the impression the world is making upon them when engaging with it. Still, “Princess Cyd” may be most electric when the two are engaging with each other, with an eventual confrontation between Miranda and Cyd leading the former to conclude, “Happiness is unique.” By capturing how women of two generations can share it while taking different paths to get there, the immense satisfaction that comes from “Princess Cyd” is quite distinct as well.