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It’s summer in New York, and for 20-something Ben, bisexual and newly out, the city, it seems, is his oyster. And his snail — to quote Hollywood’s most famous coded exchange about sexual preference. In Cicada, an Intimate and frank story of gay love and identity, little is coded. The feature debut of writer-director Matthew Fifer, who also stars, produces and edits, tackles intense personal challenges with compassion and wit and, notwithstanding the teased-out events at its core, a bracing directness.
Playing characters drawn from their own experiences, Fifer and his co-lead, Sheldon D. Brown, who also has a writing credit, hold the screen persuasively, their beauty and low-key performances magnetic. Fifer’s flirty Ben, who’s white, and Brown’s reserved Sam, Black and closeted, begin to bridge an emotional distance complicated by matters of trauma, race and the struggle for self-acceptance, and the film etches a deeply romantic view of love as an act of courage and healing. At times the drama loses its footing, but as young men trying to find their own, the actors are never less than convincing. Cicada puts Fifer and Brown on the map, not only in terms of queer storytelling but as fresh voices in indie cinema.
News reports on the Jerry Sandusky trial punctuate the story, placing it in the summer of 2012 and underscoring the central theme of child molestation, memories of which are haunting Ben with increasing urgency. His string of one-night stands with both men and women is a joyless enterprise, and he divides his daytime hours between painting jobs in the opulent apartments of ogling men and cubicle drudgery in a dreary office, whose newest employee (Jason “Freckle” Greene) joins the long list of his hookups. Frequent visits to his glib doctor (Scott Adsit) suggest not just a reasonable concern over STDs but a certain level of hypochondria: It’s as if Ben wants a definitive physical diagnosis for a primal psychic wound.
His own knack for glibness is challenged after he makes a move in broad daylight for Sam, who responds cautiously and insists on taking things slow. From Manhattan to Coney Island, Fifer, co-director Kieran Mulcare and cinematographer Eric Schleicher (also making his feature debut) imbue the New York summer with a lyrical sense of romance. For the most part they achieve this without resorting cliché — an early scene at the fountain in Washington Square Park is particularly striking — but not without indulging in one too many getting-to-know-you montages.
As the men grow closer, they press each other to face certain truths that they’ve pushed aside — two very different truths, however much the movie might liken them. Sam urges Ben, plagued by nightmares about himself as an angelic and vulnerable little boy, to seek counseling. Ben, whose mother (Sandra Bauleo) and sister (Jazmin Grimaldi) have been unquestioningly accepting of his sexual orientation, encourages Sam to come out to his churchgoing father, played with a perfect mix of gregarious and intimidating by Michael Potts (True Detective). In a notably strong scene, Ben meets Sam’s dad, and as the lovers pretend to be two straight buddies, the tensions and layers of performance are beautifully played.
So too is a monologue that Brown delivers in quiet, searing close-up as Sam reveals a harrowing recent event (one that the actor, too, endured), the physical results of which Ben and the audience have already seen. In different ways, Sam and Ben are dealing with the crucial distinction between being wanted and being targeted. Even so, this is Ben’s story, and we understand Sam’s suffering through the perspective of his new boyfriend. Their chemistry resonates as tender and true — in the erotic sparks between them, the rhythms of their banter, their uneasy silences and arguments. The aftermath of a gathering where Ben introduces his beau to a few of his friends, all of whom are white, pulses with Sam’s anger and Ben’s defensiveness, their fight all the more real for how understated and contained it is.
Cicada‘s cinematic poetry can be spare and eloquent, as when the sounds of the central duo’s bedroom session drift out into the summer street: private and public worlds effortlessly entwined. But the stylistic leaps can also be overdone and vague, as when the dialogue track is silenced, giving way to unarticulated anguish and tears. In a sense such choices express the characters’ confusion and pain, but in the late going they feel like dramatic falters, sapping the story of energy and cohesion. Cobie Smulders lends a jolt in her cameo as an unconventional therapist of distracting weirdness.
Confronting trauma and the sometimes tough business of being kind to oneself, the filmmakers seem determined to avoid therapeutic lingo and orthodoxy. It’s a refreshing goal, and one that they mostly achieve, although in such a work of autofiction, a certain level of remedy-focused self-absorption is perhaps unavoidable. At any rate, the film’s opening title card, “Based on true events,” feels unnecessary. Cicada works not because of any pre-emptive claim to authenticity but because its characters ring true in their every stumble and embrace.
Venues: BFI London Film Festival, NewFest
Production company: The Film Collaborative
Cast: Matthew Fifer, Sheldon D. Brown, Sandra Bauleo, Jazmin Grimaldi, Cobie Smulders, Scott Adsit, Michael Potts, Bowen Yang, Jason “Freckle” Greene
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Fifer
Co-director: Kieran Mulcare
Additional story by Sheldon D. Brown
Producers: Jeremy Truong, Ramfis Myrthil, Matthew Fifer
Director of photography: Eric Schleicher
Production designer: Chris Weihart
Editors: Kyle Sims, Matthew Fifer
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