Set during a particularly lush New York summer, Cicada follows the blooming romance between two twenty-somethings, both of whom are searching for themselves as much as they’re searching for love. Ben (played by writer-director Matthew Fifer) is a quietly confident but introspective soul who by day, works as a local handyman and by night, prowls the streets and bars of New York, picking up sexual partners with an underwhelming ease. Sam (Sheldon Brown) is a softly spoken intellectual still firmly in the closet as their relationship begins to develop beyond their initial engagement of being another name in their respective sexual ledgers. As their relationship blossoms, the two men gradually begin to reveal the cards they’ve held so tightly to their chests in a film that tackles love and trauma in equal measure.
Eight years prior to his directorial debut, Matthew Fifer’s career began in earnest working as part of the production crew of the New York-based indie flick, er, The Avengers. Where that box office behemoth used New York as a map for legendary superheroes to run amok in a bid to save it, Cicada’s approach encourages us to look at New York as a character in its own right, similar to the gorgeous approach taken in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Its infamous skyline serves as a hazy backdrop for a touching love story that looks as beautiful at dawn as it does at dusk; Fifer and cinematographer Eric Schleicher create some beautiful shots throughout Cicada, a personal favourite was a delightful shot of Ben and Sam hanging out in front of Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Arch, all of which reflected in the water fountain beneath their feet. The film’s character focused, personal approach rarely lets the skyline come into full view, but when it does, it’s impossible not to marvel at the stunning horizon presented to us.
New York is a playground in which our protagonists make every effort to find themselves. Both Ben and Sam play it cool often, caging their deepest insecurities within the recesses of their minds. Sam’s internal struggles mostly surround his struggle to truly express himself following an upbringing largely guided by his religious father, Francis (a brief but lovely appearance from The Wire’s Michael Potts). Even as he becomes more comfortable with Sam and their relationship, he keeps his true self hidden for fear of judgement from others, exemplified in his feeling uncomfortable at Ben’s outfit choice for a dinner with their friends. It’s in these moments where Sam contradicts himself, saying one thing but doing another, that Sheldon Brown’s performance shines.
Brown has an additional story credit as he adjusted the script based on his own personal experiences; such adjustments allowed Brown to bring himself to Sam and gives the film a truly natural edge. His charisma combined with his crushing insecurities made him a character easy to warm to, and even easier to understand how Ben managed to fall so intensely for him. Sam was rarely given a moment to himself as his role in the film was guided almost completely by Ben and their relationship, but nevertheless, Brown’s performance is beautifully authentic.
Fifer’s role in proceedings doubtlessly comes from an incredibly personal place. Ben’s introspective nature sees him isolated, at times out of choice, at others for lack of an alternative. After suffering a trauma as a young child, the specificities of which are sensibly left unsaid, Ben carries the trauma throughout his life and informs so much of how he holds himself in his day to day life. In the film’s early scenes, Ben moves from bar to bar, night after night, to find someone else to take home, but these sexual encounters – with both men and women – never seem to satisfy. They feel like a personal obligation, something Ben does to forget his past rather than out of any sexual needs. Ben does as much as he can to appear to have it all under control, but when the illusion comes crashing down and he finally opens up to Sam and his therapist, Sophie (a delightfully idiosyncratic Cobie Smulders), the pain and fear over what happened to him comes to the fore.
For a debut feature, while he may have a few aspects that need tightening up, Matthew Fifer looks to be an exciting new voice in the indie filmmaking crowd. In addition to the aforementioned The Last Black Man in San Francisco comparison, there are evident comparisons to Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre (Frances Ha and its exploration of millennial life spring to mind) with the naturalistic dialogue that reveal character quirks mid-conversation effortlessly, though occasionally Fifer’s script has that same frustrating Baumbach feature of having his characters sound a little too authorial in their speech.
Occasionally, too, the film has a sense that it throws too many things at the wall to see what sticks; a lovely needle drop of Biz-ness by Tune-Yards gives the film a needed jolt of energy but this moment is sadly short-lived. Cicada is a lean 94 minutes, arguably the ideal film length, but there were times where moments needed more time to breathe. Ben and Sam’s heated falling out at the key end of Act II/start of Act III turning point isn’t given enough time to linger and is resolved in the next scene. These lovebirds were destined for each other, but some time apart to make them realise just how destined they are wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Cicada has certainly left an impression. The film has a relatively abrupt cut to black as Ben is about to tell all which might frustrate some given the lack of true cathartic release, but the catharsis isn’t ours to feel. The catharsis comes from your interpretation of these final moments; my interpretation is one that allows Ben the time he needs to finally get everything off his chest.
With its gorgeous visuals, a compelling romance, and a delightful pair of central performances, Cicada is a winner and proves to a thoughtful and emotional journey through the lives of Ben and Sam. Its hard-hitting subject matter is dealt with tenderly and executed brilliantly by a first-time feature writer-director, resulting in a film that is going to stick with you long after you’ve heard your final cicada chirp.