Published Aug 20, 2020Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare's Cicada is a delicate exploration of the interconnectedness of trauma, sexuality and race, and the difficulty of confronting deeply rooted pain. Set during the hot summer months in New York (mainly Brooklyn and Long Island), the film focuses on Ben (Fifer) and his blossoming relationship with Sam (Sheldon D. Brown), each of whose respective traumatic experiences shape their romance in unexpected ways. The film never shies away from its heavy subject matter, acknowledging the preciousness of joy, genuine love and care in the face of irresolvable pain.
Ben's everyday experiences are frequently interrupted by manifestations of his trauma from being sexually abused as a child, such as intrusive thoughts and memories, moments of dissociation, and unexplained health problems such as chronic nausea, vomiting, fever and difficulty swallowing. He does everything he can to cope with these often terrifying symptoms, making endless appointments with his doctor (Scott Adsit), drinking, and hooking up with strangers of all different genders. One rapidly edited sequence shows fragments of Ben taking shots, having sex, sitting in his office, painting houses and jolting awake from nightmares, a formal approximation of the way he keeps himself busy and surrounded by distractions to avoid having to think too much about his memories and how they affect him.
While his new relationship with Sam is not a magic fix, Sam provides Ben with much-needed support, comfort and understanding. Ben barely speaks in the film until he meets Sam, who seems to bring out his lightness and humour. (When Sam asks what his childhood was like, he says, "I had a mushroom cut and went to Bible camp.") The men bond over their shared experiences as queer men living in New York, yet the relationship becomes fractured as Ben continually pushes Sam to come out to his father and co-workers, not understanding the specific difficulties of being a Black gay man with a religious family. Rather than taking a step back and listening to Sam when he says he feels uncomfortable and tokenized by Ben and his white friends, Ben becomes defensive and angry, deflecting responsibility onto Sam. Even after Ben apologizes, the film does not offer any illusions that racism has magically disappeared from the relationship, acknowledging that loving someone does not preclude harmful and often dangerous assumptions and biases.
Cicada beautifully explores the messy, nonlinear process of healing, both in terms of Ben's sexual assault and Sam's PTSD after being shot by a stranger in the middle of the street. Both partners get to know each other's triggers, offering mutual support, understanding and sensitivity during panic attacks and moments of physical and mental pain. Scenes with Ben's therapist, Sophia (Cobie Smulders) add some much-needed comic relief, as she sips beer, curses, and has full conversations with her dog Klonopin to prove she is "cool" and laid-back. When Ben follows her advice to share his story with anyone he feels comfortable around, a montage depicts his friends' different reactions, ranging from tears of sympathy, to sharing their own stories, to a gorgeous cameo by Bowen Yang who suggests a therapeutic trip to Dave & Buster's.
The film ends ambiguously, emphasizing the open-endedness of all the difficult topics this film touches upon. There are no straightforward fixes for the effects of violence, racism, chronic illness, or coming to terms with one's sexual identity, but Cicada shows that there are always small comforts such as gardening, laughing, drinking Long Island iced teas and running naked through apartment stairways to soothe what seems like insurmountable pain.
Vancouver Queer Film Festival is taking place online from August 13 to 23. (Beast of the East Productions)