A Kind of Lazy Sweetness

Summer in Chicago in Princess Cyd

photo: Wolfe Video

Chicago in the summer is a lazy stretch of sun after the first frenzied burst of activity when the weather finally turns warm. It’s afternoon cookouts, August block parties, the promise of watching a terrible baseball team (… or two) lose at home. It’s a riot of hydrangeas in front of every brick building. It’s the salt-water slick of running past Lake Michigan when it’s a few degrees too hot out and it’s the too-chilly freshwater slap of jumping in the lake. It’s festivals in the Loop every other weekend. It’s the smell of your neighbor’s weed drifting through the alley into your back window. Chicago is a city of big shoulders and big ambitions, and we have a complex about it that we’d rather not talk about. Every city is built on a collection of contradictions, but Chicago’s are underscored by the body/mind divide. It’s a blue-collar city with world-class theater, the kind of place where a day job of hard physical labor is offset by nights of cerebral wordplay and the complexities of jazz; most people can enjoy a combination of both. Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd (2017) captures what it’s like to be young and trying on identities in the summer in Chicago, to learn to love a place that would rather love you back wordlessly than talk openly about it.


When I moved to Chicago, I thought my stay would be temporary. I was overwhelmed by the size of the city, unused to its rhythms and public transit. I had no frame of reference for the cold or the snow. I arrived in September, just in time for the long slide into the dark of winter. I lived just off a strip of parkland that acted like a wind tunnel, funneling cold air off Lake Michigan in a freezing fury. I kept my head down. Chicago wouldn’t feel like home until I’d spent a full year here; I had to grit my teeth and wait for summer, not yet knowing how glorious that summer would be. I didn’t know that I would like the place until after I’d gotten to know its contradictions. I needed the howling winter before the relief of summer. I didn’t know that I’d love it until I’d felt the city’s warmth.


Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and her dad (Keith Kupferer) are in the midst of a rough summer. She’s sixteen, and he’s been raising her alone since her mother died nine years ago. The two stand at odds against each other in the way a teenage child and a middle-aged parent so often do. Unsure of what else to do, Cyd’s dad calls in a favor to her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). Father and daughter need a break, so Cyd goes to visit Miranda at her home in Chicago for a few weeks. Miranda is childless and unmarried, a relatively famous novelist in the vein of Marilynne Robinson who lives in the house she grew up in with her sister, Cyd’s mother. Like her brother-in-law, Miranda doesn’t know what to do about the teenager in her house. Cyd’s still figuring herself out. Everyone’s in uncharted territory.

Cyd and Miranda spend the first couple of days sizing each other up, getting used to each others’ routines. The two are wildly different from each other: Cyd is an athlete, Miranda a writer and a scholar. When Miranda shows Cyd the room she’ll be staying in, she points out the shelf full of books, and Cyd says offhand, “Oh, I don’t really read.” This takes her aunt aback, but Cyd’s unconscious of the effect her words have. She’s already on to the next thing, sweetly impetuous, a 16-year-old stuck inside her own head and unaware of her state. Her questions are direct because she hasn’t learned to couch them in politeness yet. So, too, are her answers whenever Miranda asks her something. Time hasn’t tempered Cyd’s impatience yet. Jessie Pinnick’s performance is wide-eyed; her character has a sweetness to her, even when she’s being unintentionally rude. Cyd is innocent, inexperienced. She doesn’t know quite how to explore others’ perspectives yet.  

This comes as a shock to Miranda, whom Rebecca Spence plays as though she’s weighing every word she chooses to say. Miranda has never had to raise a child, and suddenly there’s a young adult in her home, curious about the world and unsure of her own place in it, though perhaps unconscious of her own uncertainty. Cyd is all body—a runner, a soccer player, uninterested in contemplation—and Miranda lives the life of the mind, engulfed as she is in her books and essays and the classes she occasionally teaches. The two have a hard time fathoming each others’ experience.

This is not to say that their relationship is combative. Rather, it’s the cautious circling of two people with fundamentally different lives and interests, connected to each other by blood and unfamiliar with each others’ ways. For all Cyd’s carelessness in her conversation, she’s still curious, interested to know more about this woman who grew up with her mother, eager to glean whatever information she can about the person her mother was, the person she could never know. She drinks it in, absorbing whatever details she can—and in response to her apparent hunger, Miranda tells her the details: this was Cyd’s mother’s room when they were growing up, this was the restaurant they’d go to every week. She tells Cyd the details as they come up, rather than pushing them all on her at once. Getting to know a person takes time.

And Cyd is still getting to know herself, trying on personas from the safety of her mother’s childhood home. Miranda treats Cyd like the adult she very nearly is; she’s free to come and go, to run the shady streets of Ravenswood and the surrounding neighborhoods. Cyd takes the opportunity to explore their slice of Chicago’s North Side. The sidewalks with the old Red Eye newspaper stands. Montrose Beach with its bird sanctuary. The dozens of coffee shops dotting the streets—though Cyd gravitates toward one in particular with a cute barista named Katie (Malic White). All of this exploring is a push outward, a desire to learn more about the Chicago her mother grew up in, unconscious of the ways in which the city now has its fingerprints on her own identity, too.

Nor does Cyd feel the need to do everything and see everything. She doesn’t take any architecture tours or trips to Navy Pier. Her relationship to Chicago, like her relationship to her aunt, is the quiet unfamiliarity of a distant relative, rather than anything more exotic. Cone eschews establishing shots and famous locations, though the city is bursting with them, all just out of frame. For Chicagoans, sights like the Sears Tower in the distance are objects of familiar affection. We don’t call it by its official name, “Willis Tower,” unless we’re giving an official architecture tour; refusal to call a location by a new sponsored name is a marker of civic pride, and a way to put our own stamp of “ordinary” on an otherwise astounding landmark.The ordinary can astound, too. For a visitor like Cyd, the landmark would be a symbol of estrangement, a reminder that she doesn’t actually live here. Cone removes the element of tourism by keeping the big landmarks out of the film completely, relegating the action to more recognizably everyday locations: sidewalks, streets, the lake, Miranda’s house and backyard.

The house is a little unusual. Chicago neighborhoods tend to be a mix of larger apartment buildings, three-flats, and bungalows, the latter of which are more common the further outward you go. Miranda’s house sits in a quiet slice of Ravenswood, a well-to-do neighborhood in the middle of the North Side—inland, but within a couple miles of the lakeshore bike path. Its white picket fence and backyard aren’t a rarity in this part of town, but they are a luxury. The house itself has settled into its bones, the way old, well-cared-for houses do. This one has interiors emblematic of Chicago design: exposed wood trim, massive windows, spare white metal covers on all the radiators. The space speaks to the life Miranda has cultivated, grounded deep as it is in the roots her family put down ahead of her. She uses her space with a generous spirit, hosting monthly reading parties, workshopping a friend’s novel in her living room, giving her niece a place to crash for a few weeks.

And Cyd makes use of that space in ways that would never have occurred to Miranda. She lays out in the sun in the backyard, a sunny oasis surrounded by hostas and hydrangeas and orange sprays of butterfly weed, an old-fashioned, low-maintenance pollinator garden that harmonizes with Miranda’s thoughtful, welcoming nature. Guests—even birds and insects—can come and be nurtured. Cyd returns the welcome by inviting Miranda to lay out with her in the sun, and Miranda demurs at first, unsure whether she even owns a bathing suit. She doesn’t treat the backyard as a place to simply be. She eats lunch and she hosts friends and she thinks and talks in her garden, but she doesn’t take the time to sit and exist. 

Cyd pushes her to consider her own home in a new light, to think of her body as a place that she can be, instead of only living in her mind. Chicago makes its residents keenly aware of their bodies, especially in the freezing wind and the depths of the snow. You need a good coat and a set of waterproof boots to fend off the elements to live here year-round. You have to be prepared for the changes. It’s easy to retreat indoors for half the year. But the danger of retreating fully is that you can retreat indoors too far, not just into buildings but into the spaces of your own thoughts. Miranda isn’t too far gone—she lives a vigorous social life atop her life of the mind—but, in a way, she’s abandoned her body for more esoteric matters.

Cyd challenges this obliquely and directly. Miranda treats her like an adult, so Cyd asks her adult questions with the tactlessness of someone who hasn’t spent much time around adults yet: “Do you ever have sex?” Miranda isn’t prepared for this level of candor, but the question amuses her, and she’s honest: physical intimacy isn’t something she thinks about all that much, because she finds so many other more cerebral things just as rewarding. It’s been some time for her. Cyd also asks Miranda about her religious beliefs. For Cyd, religion is a curiosity, a concept so far outside of her own experience that she observes, detached, that she thinks “it’s interesting that there are people like that,” meaning people of faith. Cyd wasn’t raised religious; neither was her mother or Miranda before her. Miranda found her way to belief later in life. When Cyd asks her about it, Miranda launches into a thoughtful response about her need to have an unknowable something outside of herself. It’s a beautiful statement, but it’s so abstract that Cyd almost immediately cuts her off with an observation about the immediacy of her own non-spiritual life and what comes after: Cyd’s mother—Miranda’s sister—is gone, and Cyd doesn’t think she’ll see her again. That’s all.

Sometimes Cyd’s assertions come across as dismissiveness, a side effect of her youthful assumption that everyone thinks the same way that she does. Her actions are just slightly out of sync with the grown-up setting around her. She wears a borrowed tuxedo to Miranda’s reading party, a disproportionate fashion statement for the event. It’s a choice of clothing that is all Cyd: she perhaps hasn’t thought it through all the way, but she thinks it looks cool and distinguished, even though it turns out to be out of place for a loose gathering of literary types. When Miranda tells her about her newest novel, Cyd cuts in with “Oh, you write fantasy,” a pronouncement about Miranda’s work that reveals much about Cyd’s naïveté; she doesn’t know what the term “fantasy” means, because she isn’t a reader. (Miranda doesn’t write fantasy, but she does deal in the kind of heightened, contemplative situations that sometimes constitute magical realism.) Cyd’s directness is a kind of embodied carelessness. It isn’t borne from any malice, but it is still sometimes hurtful. At Miranda’s reading party, Cyd sits through all the stories and poems and essays brought by Miranda’s guests, then gets up to go smoke with a neighbor boy just as Miranda begins her own reading.

It’s a hurtful infraction, but one Miranda doesn’t challenge head-on. She’s been treating Cyd like an adult up until this point, so she won’t treat her like a child now. Punishment isn’t in her nature. But when Cyd says something mean about Miranda’s sex life—the kind of comment that was intended as a joke, but that would only be appropriate for the most intimate of close friends—Miranda takes the opportunity to issue a correction. She doesn’t really need to, at least not for the remark: Cyd is immediately penitent, rushing to apologize, and Pinnick plays the apology as though Cyd feels like she’s going to shrivel from embarrassment. Her entire body scrunches up in apology for the remark she’d just made, her already-wide eyes radiating concern about the line she’d just crossed.

But for once, Miranda has Cyd’s full, uninterrupted attention, and she takes the opportunity to make a single point: “It is not a handicap to have one thing, but not another. To be one way, and not another. We are different shapes and ways, and our happiness is unique. There are no rules of balance.” In other words, our individual contradictions are what make humanity whole and varied and interesting. Chicago summers are just as crucial to the city’s identity as its winters; Miranda’s life of the mind is just as valuable as Cyd’s youthful vigor. Miranda finishes off her speech with a statement to the effect of, I have a few decades on you, kid, and I might just know what I’m talking about. Rebecca Spence plays off Pinnick’s shrinking posture with minimal movement, letting Miranda finally stand her ground, unlike all the times she’s stayed silent about Cyd’s infractions before. She measures her words just as carefully as she always has, but she speaks plainly: it’s fine for the two of them to have different interests. She drills down on the differences between them, and celebrates both. Then she cuts herself off; that’s enough direct confrontation for the summer, let alone the evening.

Indirect contemplation is more Miranda’s style, anyway, and she and Cyd are brought together by their curiosity about each other’s differences. As the two lay out in the backyard, Cyd raises the idea that she’s interested in sleeping with Katie, the barista who works at the coffee shop nearby. It’s a coming-out to Miranda, and perhaps also to herself; Pinnick voices the desire as though she’s still considering whether it’s something she really wants. Once she’s said it, though, it fits. Miranda considers the statement for a moment, incorporating it into her mental portrait of her niece, then turns back to Cyd. “You know, your mother had a fling with a girl once.”

“She did?”

“Mm-hmm. It was good.”


Chicago has a reputation for being cold and snowy and boisterous. All those things are true. But they’re not the full picture. They don’t take the summers into account, nor the city’s straight-talking openness toward others. I fell in love with Chicago because I lived here a summer longer than I intended to. I fell in love with another person that same summer. We went exploring together, and as we got to know each other, I got to understand the city too. We were both transformed by each other, and by the city. I married him. We still live here.


To live in Chicago in the summer is to learn a little more about yourself, and about your neighbors, and about who you are in relation to them. Sometimes that means learning about their taste in music and weed through your own open window; sometimes it means the intimacy of friendship, or something deeper. Cyd and Miranda synthesize what it’s like to live in a city of contradictions: body and mind, summer and winter, hard work and warmth. They find a window to spend more time in, with each other in the warm and open air. And in the living, they learn more about their own preferences, and about each other. They get the chance to stretch, to take the time, to sit and simply be. They’re changed by the experience. Cyd grows ever so slightly more considerate. Miranda returns to the beach after Cyd’s visit is over. What more can you ask for from summer?