REVIEW – ‘Cicada’ is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of queer cinema of recent times

Living with repressed trauma is an unfortunate fact of life for many gay men. Whether that trauma results from experiencing homophobia, dealing with the difficult journey of accepting one’s sexuality, or, at worst, suffering sexual abuse at a young age, it’s something many queer filmmakers have frequently cathartically injected into their work. Such is the case with Matthew Fifer‘s quietly powerful feature film debut Cicada, which draws from his own experiences to craft one of the year’s finest films.

On its deceptively simple surface, Cicada feels reminiscent of your average queer romance flick, filled with scenes featuring a devastatingly handsome New York City couple getting to know one another, jumping in bed together, and unexpectedly falling in love. Thankfully, Fifer reaches for something far deeper with his introspection of trauma that refuses to shy away from the difficult journey faced by those confronting the pain of the past. Honest, warm, raw, occasionally funny, sporadically devastating, and inescapably moving, it’s one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of queer cinema of recent times.

Fifer (who serves as the film’s lead actor, writer, co-director, and co-editor) plays Ben, a bisexual twenty-something New Yorker who has recently ended his engagement to his female fiancé. As his sister, Amber (Jazmin Grace Grimaldi) so eloquently states, he’s now “back on the dick, ” as evident in a furious montage of numerous random sexual encounters with any man (plus the occasional woman and genderfluid co-worker Theresa, played by Jason “Freckle” Greene) with a pulse.

While perusing books outside Strand Bookstore, Ben meets Sam (Sheldon D. Brown, who also has a story writing credit), who instantly falls for Ben’s flirtatious charm. After spending the day (and night) together, their potential one-night stand quickly becomes something far deeper, catching both men completely off guard. As their connection grows, both Ben and Sam battle obstacles that consistently threaten to derail their burgeoning relationship.

Sam is still bearing the physical and mental scars from a recent violent incident, while Ben is carrying the buried baggage of childhood abuse that manifests into bouts of hypochondriac nausea and frequent visits to his beleaguered physician, Dr. Dragone (Scott Adsit). Complicating matters further are Sam’s religious father, Francis (Michael Potts), who has no idea his son is gay; Ben’s mother, Debbie (Sandra Bauleo), who is completely in the dark about the abuse her son suffered while he was a child; and the inherent issues facing any interracial couple.

Set in the steamy summer of 2012, Cicada takes its metaphorical title from the periodical emergence of chirping cicadas in Central Park, who only resurface in Manhattan every 17 years after hibernation. Don’t worry. I had never heard of this bizarre phenomenon either. This period setting also means the film is punctuated by news coverage of college football coach Jerry Sandusky, who, at that time, was on trial for sexual abuse of young boys over a 15 year period. Any mention of the court case inflames Ben’s nausea further, as memories of his own childhood abuse come flooding back.

It’s clear Ben has spent his entire adult life avoiding his horrifying experiences as a child, causing him to rarely take life seriously in a foolish attempt to dodge confronting the trauma that’s manifesting in numerous ways. His casual approach to sex and failure to connect with anyone on any level other than physical is inescapably connected to the childhood experiences he refuses to acknowledge. Once Ben meets Sam, he inherently recognises another soul damaged by a traumatic experience, allowing them to both begin lowering their walls.

As a semi-closeted young Black man who recently narrowly survived an unprovoked violent incident (which was directly inspired by Brown’s true life), Sam is grappling with his own crippling demons that have equally kept him from connecting with men on an emotional level. A complicated mix of resilience and vulnerability, Sam’s repression of his trauma have pushed him to isolate himself from the world and settle for a life of solitude. While Sam finds kinship with Ben, it quickly becomes difficult for each party to support the other when they’re struggling to confront and heal their own personal pain.

For all its refreshingly frank focus on pain and trauma, fans of queer romance films like God’s Own Country and Weekend will be easily swept away by the gorgeous (and complicated) love story at the centre of Cicada. The dynamite chemistry between Fifer and Brown is genuinely intoxicating and entirely authentic, with the pair crafting an intimate portrait of an interracial couple you will desperately want to see succeed. Fifer’s sublime screenplay offers the actors numerous dialogue-heavy scenes that profoundly explore these characters’ inner emotions and darkest moments.

While there is an abundance of joy in watching their love grow, there is a perpetual aura of melancholy hovering over their relationship, which deftly captures the inescapable fact both men are terribly troubled and their inner demons are constantly threatening to derail their bond. The sensitive way Fifer’s screenplay handles the intersectionality of their relationship is impressive, as he wisely refuses to shy away from the racial power disparity between the couple. This explodes in a terrific monologue from Sam where he hurls his frustration at Ben’s inherent inability to understand the issues Sam faces at being both Black and gay.

In his feature film debut, the endlessly charismatic Fifer delivers a deeply-sympathetic, layered performance that feels incredibly authentic. Naturally, it helps he’s seemingly playing a fictionalised version of himself, but he’s magnificent to watch as a character likely to elicit an equal measure of affection and frustration from the viewer. It’s a raw, heartbreaking performance that will feel tremendously pertinent to anyone who can empathise with Ben’s complicated journey in addressing his past and the issues it’s having on his life.

Brown is equally impressive as the mournful, stoic Sam. He’s a character who easily could have been a generic, shallow love interest, but Fifer’s screenplay and Brown’s terrific performance present Sam as a three-dimensional character with lashings of depth and an engaging subplot all of his own. Sam doesn’t merely exist to help Ben travel his voyage beyond his past. He has his own journey to undertake, and Fifer is wise enough to give equal focus to Sam to allow his character arc to organically flow through that of the man he’s falling in love with.

To balance the heavy drama, Cicada attempts to add a touch of levity with its supporting cast of oddball comedic characters that ultimately feel somewhat out of place with the film’s overall tone. Adsit’s bumbling Dr. Dragone feels like a character from another film entirely, delivering bizarre treatment for Ben’s hypochondria and completely ignoring the psychological issues that are obviously at the heart of his nausea. Colbie Smulders drops in as Ben’s cartoonish therapist, with the actor chewing the scenery in a bizarre performance that distracts more than it entertains.

Thankfully, these are minor quibbles in a film that gets everything else right. With his confident debut feature film, Fifer makes his mark as a director, writer, and actor to keep an eye on. By blending elements of his own life into his work, Fifer delivers a touching portrait of love, pain, trauma, and everything else in between. Cicada is an intimate, personal depiction of the ongoing effects of abuse and the complications that arise from a life spent avoiding confronting trauma. A beautiful romance with a nuanced introspection of deeper thematic issues, Cicada strives for more than just a gushy love story. In the process, it reaches the upper echelon of queer cinema.

Distributor: 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: Matthew Fifer, Kieran Mulcare
Producers: Jeremy Truong, Ramfis Myrthil, Matthew Fifer
Screenplay: Matthew Fifer
Cinematography: Eric Schleicher
Production Design: Chris Weihart
Editors: Kyle Sims, Matthew Fifer
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: TBC