Cicada (2020) BFI LFF Review
Directors: Matthew Fifer, Kieran Mulcare
Screenwriter: Matthew Fifer
Starring: Matthew Fifer, Sheldon D. Brown, Cobie Smulders, David Burtka, Bowen Yang, Scott Adsit
For a New York movie, Cicada is unusually quiet. Distinct sounds of peaceful birdsong and gentle seaside ambience stand in place of New York’s obnoxiously loud soundscape, and the film’s action plays out in suspiciously empty spaces. Although it’s unusual to see the noisy city consumed by such tranquil stillness, it is the gentle atmosphere this quiet creates which structures a safe space for Cicada’s protagonists – a space in which they are free to fall in love, work through their trauma, and, most importantly, begin to heal.
Co-directed by Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare, Cicada is a painfully sharp autobiographical illustration of a young man on his journey towards acceptance. Written by and based on his real-life experiences of sexual abuse and PTSD, the film is a cathartic and confessional exercise for Matthew Fifer (who also takes the starring role and additional roles in editing and production). Set in the soft pastel hues of New York City, the narrative follows Ben (Fifer), a handsome yet wary young man, who appears to be pursuing casual sex as a way to deflect from his unspoken trauma. Days consist of work and obsessive trips to the doctor’s office; nights are engrossed in alcohol and empty embraces. There’s no pleasure in any of it for Ben, who is unable to stop his anxiety from bubbling to the surface – anxiety which manifests itself in ways Ben doesn’t initially recognise as cognitive: phantom throat lumps, persistent nausea, hair loss and numbness.
Then, in a delightful meet-cute whilst out book-shopping at The Strand, Ben meets Sam (Sheldon D. Brown) and something begins to shift. Inexorably drawn to Sam and his persistent bombardment of searching questions, Ben starts to let down his walls. After their first date, the pair lay side by side on Ben’s bed, and with the soft glow of New York’s sunshine peeking through the window, they begin to tell each other their stories: ‘Do your parents know?’, a still closeted Sam asks shyly. Ben nods and tells Sam that his Mum is supportive, and that, upon his coming out, she assured him that ‘a mother always knows’. There’s a deeper meaning to Ben’s words here, but in the peaceful moment of recognition and shared experience, it’s effortless to gloss over the niggling feelings of worry. However, as the backdrop of the 2009 Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse trial begins to come into focus, it becomes clear that Cicada will actively face the heavy themes it brings to attention.
Eager to know as much as possible about Ben, Sam, played with delicate grace by Brown, tenderly asks him about his first sexual experience. Ben makes light of the uncomfortable energy that rears its ugly head, and attempts to wriggle out of the conversation with risqué jokes before he eventually whispers ‘I was young’. The film doesn’t necessarily go into specifics regarding the childhood sexual abuse Ben has survived; Ben’s most confessional moments take place off-screen or underneath the cover of song. Not that it needs to go into the details; Cicada isn’t a film that engages with the idea of trauma porn; the purpose here is not to feed humanity’s voyeuristic need for heartbreak. Without needing to hear the details, Sam rests a hand on Ben’s shoulder and tells him that he is there for him. It’s this shared understanding between Ben and Sam, with them being both gay men and men who have lived through significant trauma, that is the true heart of Cicada.
Although the story very much belongs to Matthew Fifer, it is his collaboration with Sheldon D. Brown that gifts the film an added depth. Brown, who was shot in a random drive-by shooting in Chicago when the film was in its early stages, also uses the movie as a space to explore the lingering effects of his life-changing experience. He shares the physical and psychological after-effects of his shooting with Sam, which gives the character the same layer of authenticity we see in Fifer’s Ben. Alongside this pain, Sam is also struggling with the traumas of racism and homophobia. Sam is yet to come out and refuses to engage in any form of physicality with Ben out in public, fearing that as the only black employee at his workplace, his sexuality will only give his colleagues another reason to other him. He also stresses the loss of the close bond he shares with his father, a religious man, who, Sam fears, won’t accept him once he knows the truth.
In an introduction to Ben’s group of all-white friends, Ben forces Sam to perform a song. Afterwards, Sam tries to explain how the situation made him feel like a tokenistic prop with which Ben could perform his wokeness. Rather than apologise, Ben bites and gets angry at Sam for having made the accusation. The argument doesn’t last long; Sam and Ben’s relationship remains steadfast throughout. They make their peace and move on, but the weight of the issue is not forgotten. The film acknowledges that the effects of racism, abuse and homophobia are not issues that can be tenderly kissed away. The trauma these men live with is prevalent throughout, yet, in scenes where Ben and Sam share the small happiness life often offers, we see the power they have to ease each other’s pain.
Ben and Sam’s story of shared experience alone would have been enough to carry the film, so it’s annoying that a flurry of recognisable faces frequently crop up and interrupt the delicate flow of their story. Cobie Smulders gets the tone all wrong in her babbling appearance as an overly ‘woke’ therapist, and very slight appearances from David Burtka, Bowen Yang and Scott Adsit feel out of place and pointless. These are actors associated with their natural exuberance and scene-stealing hilarity: here they get mere seconds to try and make something of their simplistic-background characters. It’s easy to understand why the filmmakers would want such names on their cast list, but these appearances are nothing more than empty distractions.
Still, this is only a minor criticism, and overall Cicada is a breathtaking feature debut from Fifer and Mulcare. It’s difficult to imagine the kind of strength it must have taken all involved to tackle a story such as this one, especially given the depth of emotional connection each vital member of cast and crew has with the subject matter. For such a personal film, it’s astounding that these characters manage to transcend the bounds of individual experience and speak to the universality of trauma and the varied manifestations of pain with such vividness.
Cicada will instil a sense of heartbreak that will sit with you long after the credits finish rolling.