In New York City in the hazy summer of 2013, Ben (Matthew Fifer) is finally coming into his own. He’s told his mother that he’s bisexual — she’s fine with it and reassures him that “a mother always knows.” As his friend puts it, Ben is “back on the dick,” filling his days and nights with cruisey hookups, sleeping with anyone and everyone who catches his eye, from Upper East Side DILFs (David Burtka) to blow jobs in bar bathrooms from dryly sarcastic friends (Bowen Yang). One day, browsing the carts outside Strand bookstore, Ben meets someone with whom he might have something more. Sam (Sheldon Brown) is a tall, handsome Black man who is guarded and nervous about holding hands in public, despite the intimate, passionate time they spend alone together.
Both guys have a past they’re not ready to divulge to each other quite yet — the closeted Sam flinches horribly any time there’s an unexpected loud noise, while Ben grows nauseous and physically ill any time he overhears news of the Jerry Sandusky trial that choked the airwaves that summer. Cicada devotes much of its runtime to the early stages of their relationship, each reassuring the other that he supports him, while not being ready to open up himself.
Reminiscent of intimate queer romances like Weekend, Cicada is a gorgeous portrait of all the contours of a relationship. In close-up, beautifully-lit, dialogue-heavy scenes, the film explores issues such as bodily discomfort and embarrassment, power disparities that come from one partner being more “out” than the other, power disparities that come from interracial relationships, and, ultimately, unexplored childhood trauma that needs to be excavated for either partner to truly be free.
The central metaphor that lends the film its name is perhaps a bit too pat and obvious, especially in a later scene that spells it out explicitly. Also, as intimate and poetic a film as Cicada is, it’s rather distracting that the supporting cast is full of comedians; in addition to Bowen Yang, Jo Firestone has a quick cameo, and Jason “Freckle” Greene plays Ben’s coworker Theresa. 30 Rock star Scott Adsit is especially out of place as the doctor that the hypochondriac Ben keeps going back to, and some of his comical line readings are tonally out of place with the rest of the film, as though they could have been written for 30 Rock’s famously out-of-touch Dr. Spaceman. Similarly, Colbie Smulders’ therapist character is brash and cartoonish, which provides a strange contrast to Fifer’s heartbreaking, deeply-empathetic performance as he tries to work through his trauma.
Thankfully, though, these are small complaints, as most of the cast mentioned above have very little screen time. Most of the film is spent with Fifer and Brown, and the scenes they share together are really special. The characters feel like real people who are going through something deeply personal, which makes sense: Fifer also wrote and co-directed the film (with Kieran Mulcare), which is semi-autobiographical. He calls the film “the secret I never wanted to tell… born of necessity.” A few months before production was due to begin, Brown was actually shot, and his experience recovering from that was folded into the character of Sam.
“My experience felt inconsequential in the wake of his,” Fifer writes. “His wounds were life and death… My pain felt distant and numb.”
That dichotomy is the heart of the film — how do you support someone dealing with something life-altering, while you yourself need to find a way to heal from something altogether different? There are no easy answers to be found in Cicada, aside from an emphasis on the importance of telling your story, and of being there, ready to listen, when they need to tell you theirs.