Matt Fifer’s feature debut (co-directed with Kieran Mulcare) is a deeply personal one; a semi-autobiographical story about a bisexual man who struggles with intimacy due to a traumatic childhood experience and is forced to confront his past in order to move on from it. In Cicada, Fifer plays Ben, a lonely New Yorker who goes from job to job, fling to fling, and spends his free time regularly getting checked for STDs. His life is fairly empty until he meets Sam (Sheldon D. Brown, who co-wrote the screenplay) at a bookshop and forms an instant connection with him worth building on.
After Sam opens up about not coming out to his devout father and being randomly shot by a homophobe a few years prior, Ben finally feels able to discuss his own baggage, having been sexually assaulted as a young boy (set in 2013, this all plays out over the backdrop of the trial of football coach Jerry Sandusky, occasionally overheard on the news). Ben says at one stage, ‘I always thought if I ended up with a man, it would mean I lost.’ But together, Ben and Sam soon find themselves in a strong, healthy relationship, built on mutual trust and respect.
At the heart of Cicada is two compelling and passionate central performances. Brown is certainly the most natural in front of camera, but Fifer conveys Ben’s sadness skilfully enough, likely owing to his own relationship with the material, and the two share a natural chemistry that more than sells their affection for one another.
Thematically rich, this film not only focuses on homosexuality, childhood trauma and PTSD, but also on the challenges of an interracial relationship. Sam’s discomfort when meeting Ben’s friends for the first time draws a barrier between two men who had previously felt so equal. It’s a story of intersectionality and of otherness, in its many forms, and of finding the courage to own how you feel and work through it.
It’s clear that Ben has never really discussed his past before, but he’s encouraged to do so by Sam, and soon seeks out a therapist (awkwardly played by Cobie Smulders), and even opens up to his closest friends and family about it for the very first time. These are two lost souls who really needed a nudge, and their love for one another proves to be enough.
It definitely tries too hard in places, commonly turning to evocative montages and slo-mo as a means of conveying emotion, and it undoubtedly has issues with its pacing, but it’s also a film born of such passion and heart that it more than holds your interest. It’s a moving study both of personal identity and of past trauma, and a romantic, honest, personal tale of two men who find solace with each other in their time of need and learn to face their past together.
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