As Hollywood studios have pivoted towards four-quadrant movie marketing in the past few decades, one side effect has been the sanitizing of sexuality. In the current marketplace, independent films seem to be the final holdout for more frank explorations of sex on screen. One such example is Cicada, which uses an honest depiction of modern dating culture as the foundation for its piercing character study of a gay couple in New York City.
Writer-director Matthew Fifer mines his own experiences to play Ben, a bisexual man who indulges in casual sex with multiple partners (vividly demonstrated through a varied montage of trysts). Despite the occasional protest from his closest friend, he is comfortable with his chosen lifestyle. One day, however, a chance encounter with a handsome stranger – Sam, played by Sheldon D. Brown – upends his routine. After flirting outside a bookstore, they agree to go on a date. Before long, the pair have settled into committed relationship. But as they open up to each other, their inner struggles begin to threaten their newfound happiness.
As we go on this journey with the characters, both filmmaker and actors alike get off to a shaky start. Favoring naturalism to a fault, the initial courtship feels like overly mundane mumblecore. As such, the dialogue and acting comes across somewhat stilted.
Luckily, the film soon hits its stride as the themes and performances get richer and probe deeper. Reminiscent of the European escapades of Richard Linklater‘s “Before Trilogy”, New York City is showcased as a grand playground as the lovers eloquently navigate their feelings. Meanwhile, their bedroom confessions recall the post-coital vulnerability of Andrew Haigh‘s Weekend.
Indeed, Cicada follows in a great tradition of love stories. But it distinguishes itself through the unique specificity of its characters and their relationship. Whether it’s the challenges of an interracial relationship (Sam is black, Ben is white), the difficulties of coming out to your parents, or the lingering traumas of their past, the film unfolds with a bracing, raw authenticity.
As Sam and Ben reveal their physical and psychological wounds, Fifer’s script shows a deep understanding of how relationships can be a great source of healing. Yet he also acknowledges that sometimes “love isn’t enough,” to quote Judy Garland‘s heartbreaking monologue from A Star is Born. Through his heartrending filmmaking and his incredibly tender performance (and a worthy screen partner in Brown), Fifer reveals the bittersweet reality of love in all its messy, enigmatic glory.