Cicada isn’t like a lot of romance films. It’s pretty slow, reasonably light on dialogue, and deals with issues that are really serious – and more often than not, it’s a sweet, powerful look at modern-day gay relationships and the tribulations still faced by gay people.
The spearhead behind the film is writer-director-star Matt Fifer, in his first directorial role and only the second acting role of his career. It’s only fitting that we mention him first because Cicada is based heavily on his real-life experiences, and thanks to Fifer’s willingness to interrogate these topics on film, it becomes a really honest, sensitive portrayal of what an out gay man experiences. His performance – as Ben, a handyman with a concerning mystery illness and tormented by demons from his past – is one of charm, nuance and pain. It’s so evident through Fifer’s performance how much Ben’s past haunts him, but his reluctance to always come forward with this is a heartbreaking contrast to how confident and bubbly he is with Sam (Sheldon D. Brown).
Theirs is a beautiful, pure and heartfelt relationship, which works just as well during times of trouble as times of intense adoration. The gorgeous cinematography from Eric Schleicher often lingers on the serene New York setting, and handles the sex scenes with so much care and respect. The chemistry between the leads is also palpable, with the conversations between the two ranging from playful and flirtatious to serious and grave – with a particular argument where Sam discusses the racial dynamics of their relationship proving particularly illuminating, and not the sort of thing most films would consider.
And that’s exactly why Cicada is so good at what it does: it takes relationships and shines them in the honest, open and often flawed light that most Hollywood romances shy away from. Seeing how Sam’s PTSD impacts his life, or Ben’s desire to hide his ominous medical condition from his partner, feels so much more real than most straightforward love stories, and for that, the film should be applauded. Every step of their journey you’ll be invested – it’s beautiful seeing them grow and develop together, and it’s painful but realistic when things don’t go to plan.
Perhaps that why when Cicada does take missteps, it’s a little more disappointing. Despite being a progressive film in how it normalises homosexuality and doesn’t treat it any different to other relationships, the representation of trans people isn’t fantastic. There’s only one trans character, Theresa, whose entirely personality revolves around blatant sexuality and persistently hitting on Ben – which is a disappointingly simplification and stereotyping of transness that a film such as this could’ve handled much more sensitively.
Yet that said, Cicada does great work elsewhere in portraying a touching and totally natural romance with characters that feel so unflinchingly real. It has gravitas, it has laughs and it has moments of terror, but it’s a really enriching experience that, while not reaching the heights of films like Moonlight, is definitely worth a watch.