Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare direct Cicada, a complex and impressively nuanced drama centred on the blossoming relationship of two thirty-something men in New York. Delving into human fragility and the experiences which shape us, Cicada is a compelling and finely-tuned emotional experience driven by stellar performances from Fifer and his co-writer and co-star Sheldon D. Brown.
Caught in a spiral of endless hook-ups and continuous medical worries, New Yorker Ben (Fifer) makes a somewhat aimless living as painter and decorator. After encountering handsome stranger Sam (Brown), the pair gradually bond over the hazy New York summer with an immediate spark developing. As Ben and Sam’s relationship develops, both men find their defences being stripped back, revealing their fragilities and the past experiences which have shaped the people they have become.
Initially it appears that Cicada will navigate somewhat familiar territory within gay-themed cinema, the handsome young man that discovers a love that helps him escape the repetitive cycle of endless hook-ups – and whilst this is explored – Cicada puts a far more complex, heartfelt spin on this. Much of the appeal of Fifer and Brown’s narrative comes from being drawn into this expected narrative then being hit by the layers of our protagonists being stripped back to reveal some surprising and hard-hitting emotional themes.
Encountering Ben in the early stages of the film, we see his insatiable sexual desire in an endless string of hook-ups – many of which pack a light comic touch, something that Brown and Fifer’s story manages to gently sprinkle throughout amidst weightier themes. Bisexual Ben navigates from one partner to another, perpetually on the hunt, albeit distant and distracted throughout. Yet something about Ben’s meeting with Sam feels different – their first embraces are slowed-down, quiet, and linger romantically whilst they communicate in a natural, unforced and wholly absorbing manner which is both flirtatious and sexy. Ben and Sam gradually open-up about more personal discoveries such as their first realisation of same-sex attraction and romantic experiences, discussions that begin to pave the way for both men to unveil their respective fragilities.
Spending their time in a tightly-packed bookstores, isolated urban rooftops, and sun-stroked New York parks, Ben and Sam gradually share their experiences whilst beginning to form more of a conventional romantic couple dynamic with the filmmakers capturing this in a quietly engrossing and understated manner. Visually arresting aesthetics from hazy waves appearing across the camera to capture the baking New York summer and a dusky colour palette brings a light and palatable realism to Cicada.
Cicada reveals Ben’s trauma, a victim of abuse in his childhood, something which ripples into his everyday adult life. Scenes between Ben and his laid-back therapist Sophie (an impressive Cobie Smulders) give further insight into his behaviours, with Cicada impressively showcasing the devastating lifelong effect on victims. Background media exposure of the Sandusky abuse scandal on radio broadcasts or television news bulletins explore the spectre of abuse with this bringing Ben’s past trauma to the forefront. Ben’s opening up of this to Sam captures the need for victims to gain support and communicate the grim truth of abuse.
Similarly Sam’s narrative arc packs an emotional weight with the character revealing he was shot: the trauma of this rearing its head in the sudden noises of the city – from passing cars to fireworks. This union of two fragile souls and the restorative power of human connection is handled with a rich finesse through Cicada whilst never losing a sense of charm.
Fifer brings a vibrancy to the fold as Ben – capturing the balance of a man navigating serious trauma yet still charming, amusing, and functioning – no easy task. Brown is equally magnetic capturing a huge spectrum of the queer POC experience in the role from navigating the coming out process, integrating himself in Ben’s life and predominantly white friendship group, and coping with his own tragedies.
Cicada is a triumph from start to finish – bolstered by staggering performances from Fifer and Brown, it captures the complexities of queer relationships, past traumas, and newfound love, doing so in an emotionally intelligent and effortlessly charming manner.