Although writer-director Stephen Cone’s films (every one of them worth seeing, including his latest) address all sorts of dramatic turmoil, often the Chicago-based filmmaker cuts away from the collisions at the point of impact, preferring to give his characters their privacy, and to let the viewer fill in a blank.
The discretion works in “Princess Cyd,” photographed by Cone and the excellent cinematographer Zoe White in ways that make Chicago warm and welcoming. Rebecca Spence plays Miranda, the most tightly wrapped of the major characters. A successful novelist living in the Ravenswood Gardens neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side, she’s visited at the top of the movie by her 16-year-old niece, Cyd, played by Jessie Pinnick. They haven’t seen each other since Cyd lost her mother eight years earlier, in a bloody incident whose details Cone keeps under wraps until one of those carefully timed thresholds of revelation.
Cyd, who’s into soccer and has a sort-of boyfriend back home, pulls her aunt out of her comfort zone. Miranda, used to a solitary and intensely literary existence (though she has lots of friends), doesn’t quite know what to make of this blithely confident girl who matter-of-factly states she isn’t much of a reader. “This was your mom’s room, by the way,” Miranda tells her, as Cyd is getting settled in the home where Miranda and Cyd’s late mother grew up.
Calmly, efficiently, Cone’s coming-of-age story spends a few weeks with these two. In short order the movie presents a new romantic avenue for Cyd to explore, in the person of barista Katie (Malic White), a mohawked lesbian with kind eyes and an avid interest in this newcomer to the neighborhood.
The characters embody handily contrasting viewpoints. Miranda’s spiritually grounded; Cyd doesn’t really get people who define themselves as religious. Miranda and her vaguely available writer friend (James Vincent Meredith) tip around the edges of something more than a friendship, while Cyd’s more like Petra the maid in “A Little Night Music,” celebrating in her own way what passes by, in this case female or male.
The performances by Pinnick and Spence are clean, vivid and honestly felt, with a lot of the best work emerging nonverbally in the spaces between characters closing a gap. The movie could use a few more detours or off-plot detail; it risks overdeliberation at times. But these are traits you find in someone’s work when you genuinely like the characters, and want more from them.
In some of Miranda’s discussions about her own writing, she talks about her work containing “metaphysical themes and spiritual themes, but it’s basically realism.” (Same goes for Cone.) In an editing session with her friend, Miranda refers to a certain amount of “clunkily laid out” exposition; Cone, like every other writer-director on the planet, has struggled against that one. He wears these self-referential flourishes lightly. My favorite is the most shameless: Over at Katie’s place, Katie takes Cyd up to the rooftop, and there’s a two-person camera crew atop the neighboring building.
“Are they making a movie?” Cyd wonders. They are. The director asks the two women to slow-dance for the background of the scene they’re filming. The moment is baldly contrived, a little ridiculous — and, the way Cone and his performers handle it visually and emotionally, quite lovely.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Princess Cyd" — 3 stars
No MPAA rating (some language and nudity)
Running time: 1:36
Opens: Friday (through Nov. 9), Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org.