Cicada, Matthew Fifer’s directorial debut, is a semi-autobiographical, multi-layered tale of the long-reaching effects of childhood trauma. Fifer, who shares writing credits with co-star Sheldon D Brown, plays Ben, a 30-something New Yorker who is shagging his way through life. In fact, I’ve never seen more sex in the space of ten minutes in my life, and I used to go to Heaven in the 80s.
There’s nothing joyous about Ben’s sex life as he goes about getting his rocks off a grim determination reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), which tells the story of sex addiction. But this is not the story of a sex addict: It is clear that Ben is escaping and Fifer teases us with crumbs of flashback of Ben as a young child, these flashbacks becoming ever more revealing as the action progresses
The story moves up a gear when Ben meets Sam (co-writer Sheldon D Brown) and, as they get to know each other better, their layers begin to peel away revealing the secrets and fragilities they must share if they are to truly let the other person in.
Fifer explains: “‘Cicada’ was the secret I never wanted to tell. I was tired of seeing the same abuse story told over and over again— trauma for the sake of drama, pain without levity, filmmakers representing experiences they had no actual experience with themselves. The facts are one in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen, male victims are far less likely to come forward, and abusers are often a part of the family, not strangers lurking in the shadows. None of the narratives I’ve seen negotiate that truth.”
Even stories dealing with the most serious of subjects need to be told with a modicum of light and shade: with the best will in the world, 90 minutes of unrelenting misery is hard to get through, and supporting star Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother, Stumptown) delivers a deliciously eccentric performance as Ben’s therapist…not exactly what you’d call comic relief, but a lightness of touch which provides a much-needed change of pace.
At some point, we touch on the tendency of some white gay men to fetishise black men and I would have liked to have seen a deeper exploration of a subject which is especially relevant to LGBTQ+ people of colour. That said, at least the issue – which has pretty much been overlooked by film makers – got a nod, and that is certainly a step in the right direction if we want to appreciate and acknowledge the importance of intersectionality.
It would be over-simplistic to say that the message of “Cicada” is that “love conquers all” – it can help but, ultimately, alongside love we need to face up to our past in order to move on from it. It is this that Fifer handles particularly impressively, showing us that recovery is possible but it’s not going to happen with a kiss from a handsome prince: it takes hard work and – if you’re lucky enough to have one – a support network of friends, family and professionals. But moving on is possible, as Ben and Sam demonstrate.
Cicada is available via Peccadillo from 4th February 2022.
Read Rob Harkavy’s review of Minyan here.