Directed by Matt Fifer and Kieran Mulcare.
Starring Matt Fifer, Sheldon D. Brown, and Sandra Bauleo.
New York City, 2013. A young bisexual man enters an interracial relationship. In the midst of the Sandusky trial, against the backdrop of a cicada summer, he comes to terms with his own childhood trauma.
Multi-hyphenate filmmaker Matt Fifer makes a name for himself as writer, co-director, and star of this semi-autobiographical drama about two men coming to terms with searing trauma while embarking upon a passionate relationship.
When we first meet bisexual Ben (Fifer), he’s seemingly banging his way through New York in a series of listless, dispassionate encounters, before making chance acquaintance with the hunky Sam (Sheldon D. Brown). Though the promise of a lasting connection lingers, each realises as they peel back the layers of the other’s psyche that they have deep-seated psychological scars which must first be confronted.
Not since Steve McQueen’s Shame has so much sex featuring good-looking people seemed so positively un-sexy, at least in those early moments as Ben fucks while wearing a clear world-weariness on his face. Even away from the bed, though, he’s nauseous and frequently feels his throat closing up, even as his doctor (Scott Adsit) insists that there’s nothing physically wrong with him, implying that the issues must be psycho-somatic.
The nature of Ben’s PTSD won’t be remotely shocking to anyone paying attention, while Sam’s tortured past proves far more specific to the experience of being a black man in America; we know that he has had recent surgery and touts a colostomy bag – which results in one messy sexual encounter between the two – but the cause of Sam’s wound isn’t revealed until later. That’s not to ignore the fact that Sam also hasn’t come out to his affable yet “traditional” father, Francis (Michael Potts).
Despite the potential for slushy melodrama with so much tension hanging in the air, Fifer’s film is awash in naturalism, much of it defined by the pair’s laid-back discussions about their lives. In other hands it could feel expository, but as they two men are in a genuine stage of getting to know one another and clearly have a lot to get off their chests, it succeeds as strictly observational.
In its best moments Fifer and Kieran Mulcare’s film evokes the intoxicating vibe of the Before series, with Ben and Sam walking the airy New York streets while drinking in one another’s company. But that’s not to ignore the effectiveness of the multi-faceted, unavoidably dark drama, with each man struggling to make sense of his own inner-conflict. For Ben, it’s the anxiety of being a gay man following an incident of childhood abuse at the hands of a male family member, and trying to assure himself that his mere gayness doesn’t count as a “win” for his abuser.
For Sam, he’s rattled by sudden noises, and struggles to reconcile what his blackness means in the gay sphere, as he tells Ben, “You have no idea what it’s like to be the other.” In a particularly fraught and heartbreaking moment, he expresses concern that Ben could be using him as a fetishistic token of his own permissive liberalism.
In terms of its wider context, set in 2013 as it is, the story unfolds in the shadow of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse trial, which is heard on the TV and radio numerous times throughout the film, and passingly commented upon by Sam’s father. The gentrification of New York is also fleetingly addressed, with Sam’s dad wryly commenting, “All they need to rape and pillage is a juice bar.” These two peripheral elements reflect Ben and Sam’s respective struggles in a way that feels organic to the tale being spun.
Even so, the film would fundamentally fall apart without two well-matched leads, which it certainly has. Fifer is effective as a soft-spoken young man in dire need of vocalising his traumatic past aloud, while Brown – who also contributed to the story – is similarly remarkable in the role of a man who can’t hear a car backfire without flinching. Together, their chemistry is never less than deeply felt; both men wear their pain without deigning to melodrama, bearing the mutual scars of PTSD in markedly different ways.
The unexpected presence of Cobie Smulders in a supporting role as Ben’s unconventional therapist does prove slightly distracting, however, and speaks to the fact that Fifer and Mulcare aren’t beyond the occasional over-stepping embellishment. This is also felt through the film’s style, which while stately and low-fi for the most part, touts a few sickly faux-indie flourishes, namely several montage sequences with contrived, affected “shaky cam,” and a few dreamy flashbacks to Ben’s childhood with reverberating dialogue which feel a little out of place.
If it’s easy to sniff at the near-mumblecore aesthetic of it all, Cicada does nevertheless capture the pulse of both its two central characters and also the city itself. It occasionally threatens to suck viewers out of the story with its fringe excesses, but builds to a dramatic head while avoiding the misery-porn cliches that feel so tired in gay-themed dramas in 2020.
An uncommonly frank, slight romance that’s overflowing with empathy and brought to vivid life by its two compelling lead actors.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.