At some point during Princess Cyd, I had to admit to myself that I simply wasn’t a fan of its director, Stephen Cone. Frankly, I hated this realisation about myself. Cone seems like a nice enough guy, and he directs with obvious passion and goodwill. His films are so… benign. Almost too benign. Have you met someone who’s just a little too nice? Not in an obsequious or insincere way, but in a way that suggests they desperately don’t want to be disliked? Stephen Cone’s movies are like that.
There’s more to it, of course. There are other common threads in Cone’s current filmography, but the most unshakeable is the feeling that they’re so amateur. They don’t feel like real movies, but like something you’d try to cobble together with your buddies on evenings and weekends. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I feel this way… it could be the dialogue that always sounds like something a college kid would write for a playwriting class, instead of something a real person would naturally say. Maybe it’s the performances that always feel a take or two away from ringing true. Maybe its the blocking that always feels a little awkward. Or maybe it’s the slow-motion shots that look like they’ve been taken with a smartphone.
I really didn’t like his last film, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to write a negative review of it. I started, though. I wrote things like, ‘There’s enough plot to fill a short subject;’ and, ’That Cone casts such obviously gay actors in the gay roles could uncharitably be read as insidious,’ and, ‘Cone is incapable of subtlety, which makes his film play a lot like propaganda—a kind of liberal equivalent to The Case for Christ.’ And also, ‘crafted with such love and delicacy, it dares you to dislike it.’
All of these things apply to Princess Cyd. Let’s start with ‘There’s enough plot to fill a short subject.’ Will you indulge me, and allow me to quote the IMDb plot summary verbatim? Here: ‘Eager to escape life with her depressive single father, 16-year-old athlete Cyd Loughlin visits her novelist aunt in Chicago over the summer. While there, she falls for a girl in the neighborhood, even as she and her aunt gently challenge each other in the realms of sex and spirit.’ I quote this because the phrase ‘gently challenge’ is almost right, but the word ‘challenge’ implies more than the film delivers. Much like Henry Gamble, the characters lack obstacles and any tension is largely theoretical. In fact, there is one scene involving a Very Bad Thing happening to Cyd’s new girlfriend, and Cone is so genteel about it, you’ll lose your ability to even.
Maybe I was fibbing a bit when I said that I realised I wasn’t a Cone fan in the middle of Princess Cyd. I felt it right from the very beginning. It opens with a flashback, but it’s an audio-only flashback, which is about as niggling as it sounds. Late in the film, when you finally discover the context for this audio, you almost can’t believe that no one told Cone to scrap it; that it doesn’t work is an understatement.
That honestly goes for most of the scenes, because it’s impossible to believe you’re seeing real people. Cyd and her aunt, Miranda, don’t interact like family; they seem like two actors in rehearsal. Cyd and her girlfriend, Katie, don’t seem like women eager to explore each other’s bodies; they seem like actors fumbling through a cloddishly blocked scene.
There’s one moment, during the scene where the Very Bad Thing happens to Katie, where Cyd has her hands around someone’s throat, but is unable to actually exert any pressure. That’s Stephen Cone in a nutshell. He goes to such great pains to make nice movies, he can’t apply any pressure. His films have no rough edges. They pass right through you. I think they serve for liberals much the same purpose a film like God’s Not Dead or The UnMiracle serves for conservatives—they gently and blandly reinforce a worldview for 90 minutes, and then vanish from your mind.
I feel dirty even writing this review. I’m criticising movies so nice, I genuinely feel bad that I don’t like them. Like Cone’s previous movie, Princess Cyd is ‘crafted with such love and delicacy, it dares you not to like it.’ It seems I’m up to the challenge, though.