London Film Festival 2020: CICADA

CW: sexual abuse, trauma

For much of its running time, Cicada is reminiscent of a host of romances dating back to Richard Linklater’s seminal Before Sunrise. The ones where nascent couples wander both aimlessly and with purpose, discussing life, death, and everything in-between as the magic of love quietly appears in a low-key, touching manner. If that were all Cicada did then it would be a perfectly enjoyable entry into the ‘nothing happens’ indie romance sub-genre. Yet the film is altered, and elevated, by an undercurrent of trauma that haunts its central pair. The warmth and romanticism of Linklater is there, but this is a sadder, more reticent kind of love story.

Age, Sex, Location

Matt Fifer writes, directs (with Kieran Mulcare) and stars here as Ben, a man who is well-described by his own ‘A/S/L’: “Age: 20-something. Sex: Yes. Location: Dangerously close to a cute boy.” Handsome and charming he may be, but it doesn’t take long to work out that Ben is crumbling internally. As we are introduced to him in the film’s opening, everyone around him speaks, but the man himself barely utters a word. From what we can see of Ben’s life, it involves a lot of sex and a lot of sad stares and trips to the doctor. He exists quietly, not acting so much as falling between these two states, of short-lived ecstasy and lasting pain.

Things brighten up a bit for Ben when he meets Sam, a more reserved foil to Ben’s restless energy. Sam is played by Sheldon D. Brown, who contributed story and character details to Fifer’s script, which is based on a combination of both their experiences. As soon as they lay eyes on each other, the chemistry between the pair is obvious, making it very clear that the A/S/L of these two men will be perfectly compatible.

London Film Festival 2020: CICADA
source: London Film Festival

As with most romances, the film follows a fairly typical structure of a meet-cute, followed by growing love, followed by a big problem in their relationship. In a big studio rom-com, the final stage is then a reunion followed by everlasting love and/or a wedding. What is interesting about watching a low-budget indie romance like Cicada is that the film has the luxury of not conforming to those commercial expectations, and therefore the possibility of no reunion, of a sad, unromantic ending is always there. Ben and Sam’s relationship is therefore much easier to properly invest in.

Despite its serious tone and heavy subject matter in the background of the love story, there is always something very enjoyable about watching Sam and Ben’s relationship unfold on screen. Their romance is never played for laughs but carries that palpable warmth and optimism that comes with newfound love which the likes of Before Sunrise convey so well. And in Fifer and Brown we have an endlessly watchable pair, who not only have great chemistry together but bring individual power to the drama. Add in Mulcare, and Cicada marks the arrival of three thus far unheralded acting and filmmaking talents.

My Dear Melancholy

Despite the spark between Ben and Sam, and the hope and excitement it gives to both men, something remains a little off throughout Cicada. The film has a consistently ethereal feel to it, with a near-constant score and inventive camerawork keeping the audience at arm’s length. We are left with a portrayal of their relationship that is intimate yet distant, fully aware of what is going on in the men’s lives, but without really entering them.

London Film Festival 2020: CICADA
source: London Film Festival

This is all intentional, and it is what gives Cicada much of its originality and intrigue. The film’s tone is almost permanently melancholic, even in the supposedly joyful moments. When we witness declarations of love or swoon-worthy rooftop picnics, there is the underlying feeling that something is wrong. That’s because there is, for both Ben and Sam.

Ben, we learn early on, was sexually abused by his football coach as a child. It is something he hides from most people, including his own mother. Yet repressing his trauma becomes harder and harder for Ben as the legal case surrounding his abuser is back in the news again some 20 years later. Sam, meanwhile, is both physically and mentally scarred from a shooting that happened a few years before. A seemingly random drive-by, we are not told whether the attack was homophobic or not, but the incident has clearly affected Sam’s ability to connect. He is also still not out to his father, who he suspects may not react well.

London Film Festival 2020: CICADA
source: London Film Festival

The weight of this aspect of the story is alleviated somewhat by an appearance from Cobie Smulders as Ben’s idiotic therapist who simply won’t shut up. She brings a dose of humour to the film that it needs, meaning the discussion of trauma does not weigh down the film’s more optimistic notes. The gloomy edge to Cicada is crucial, though, and effectively conveys the distance between Sam and Ben. Until they break through their issues around each other, they will not fully connect and feel emotional catharsis, and neither will the audience.

Love is Complicated

All the way through Cicada we are waiting for our heroes to be allowed true happiness, to be able to live and love without pain. The film’s strength lies in not giving us this easy way out. Fifer and Mulcare’s movie is a great exploration of how external factors, including trauma and abuse, can affect a relationship. It also nicely delves into the idea of codependence and how a relationship can act as a form of emotional support for the wounded. The fear of this becoming one-sided or toxic drives Ben and Sam’s reticence, but their need for each other is clear.

The story in general, crafted so well by Fifer and Brown, is a great look at how complicated love can be, and that in spite of a unified love for each other, two people are always going to bring with them two lives, two sets of pain. It is worth noting that Ben is the principal protagonist, the first and the last person we see before Sam enters his life. Given the amount of media where a person of colour plays second fiddle to a white lead, this could be a concern. Thankfully, Brown and Fifer together handle the intersectionality of their story sensitively and thought-provokingly.

Ben’s privilege as a white middle-class male and the social mores of his distinctly caucasian friends are dissected nicely in the film, and it is refreshing to see Sam and Ben openly discuss the latter’s attitude to his partner’s race. The film also goes out of its way to make sure Sam is a fully-fledged character with depth and a proper storyline, rather than just someone who facilitates Ben’s journey. In fact, the film only works because it invests in both characters. Sam is admittedly, to an extent, a catalyst for Ben’s emotional development, but he is one with his own story and his own arc. Ben looks to Sam for unwavering support but finds him to be a real person, with his own problems, not just a helpful crutch.

Cicada is for the most part a two-hander, with both leads shining bright. Sam’s arc almost fits inside Ben’s like a nesting doll, with plenty of importance but less screen time. The film keeps coming back to Ben, and perhaps that is because as much as anything this is a story about the lasting effects of abuse. It is his reckoning with this that drives the film and his actions. All aspects of Ben’s life have been altered by the abuse he suffered, and Cicada offers an impressively delicate portrayal of that. It shows the vulnerability of its lead but also his strength, and how the discovery of true love can help him flourish.

Cicada could be a major breakthrough for Matt Fifer, Kieran Mulcare and Sheldon D. Brown. What other films on this year’s festival circuit announce the arrival of a big new talent? Let us know in the comments!

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