In Cicada by Matt Fifer and Kieran Mulcare, a twenty-something in New York finds love but his life is clouded by the memories of childhood abuse and the pain of not knowing how to deal with it.
Sexual healingby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As we meet Ben (Matt Fifer, Jay & Pluto) he is going through the motions with a string of casual sexual encounters with various men and women, repeatedly waking up in a cold sweat and making regular trips to see his doctor (Scott Adsit, 30 Rock) while displaying paranoia around myriad conditions.
When he sparks with Sam (Sheldon D Brown, The Canyonlands) at a bookstore another hook-up seems inevitable but the attraction and connection between the two soon becomes a burgeoning relationship that we see develop tenderly.
Ben learns that Sam was the victim of a shooting and so carries his own scars, both physically and emotionally, and some of his own issues mirror and contrast Ben’s.
A story of two damaged people finding love could feel clichéd but Cicada is partly autobiographical for both Fifer (who co-directed, wrote, produced and edited the film) and Brown (who himself contributed to the screenplay) based on their experiences, thus adding great depth and authenticity through their understanding of trauma and their soulful performances.
The film thus shines a light on different traumas that can shackle and afflict people. Having a central bi-racial couple also introduces the issue of race, while coming out and feeling comfortable with your sexuality is also addressed through both lead characters.
A clever repeated motif is the use of audio of a TV report of a child abuse trial. Several times Ben stops to listen to it but the TV is never shown, thus bringing into question whether it is a product of Ben’s imagination or a hidden hope he carries of what could perhaps happen.
Regular scenes of Ben doing manual work at the home of Bo (David Burtka, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas) paint the older man as a possible predator, even to an adult Ben, using innuendo and seeing Ben as a sexual object.
Details of Ben’s childhood abuse are never revealed but we see frequent flashbacks of Ben innocent and happy as a golden-haired child and a recurring shot of Ben, both as child and adult, standing in the same spot in front of his family home.
Despite the subject matter it’s not all heavy going; there is a great lightness of touch in the depiction of the growing romance between Ben and Sam. There is a genuine sweetness as we see their feelings deepen while they lie in the grass talking in a park, or walk around a fountain bathed in morning light.
There are also moments of witty dialogue and offbeat supporting characters notably Ben’s unconventional sweary therapist (Coby Smulders, How I Met Your Mother) and his quirky colleague Theresa (Jason Greene, The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo).
The film is simply and beautifully shot using natural lighting as well as a minimal soundtrack. Outdoor sounds of nature have a role and the sound of the titular cicada in summer later plays an important part in a scene between Ben and his mother (Sandra Bauleo, Good Crazy).
Although it’s not a film to leave everything neatly resolved, we leave both characters further along their journey to healing. It’s an engaging ride.
Cicada screens in the 2020 BFI London Film Festival on 12 October 2020.