SUB: Matt Fifer decided to set his debut film in 2013 for reasons that go beyond that year’s 17-year periodic cicadas that give this evocative, moving drama its title. At the time, the appalling Jerry Sandusky-fueled Penn State child sex abuse scandal was still a regular topic in the news, as we hear in recurring snippets from the radio in Cicada (★★★★★ – Critic’s Pick). Yet viewers are left to speculate on what, if anything, links the scandal to lead character Ben (Fifer) for the longest time, in an echo of the film’s gradual shift in both tone and topic.
Based on a true story, Cicada first registers as a highly stylized, atmospheric look at a young man’s attempts to connect and communicate, with Fifer portraying Ben as a laconic, heavy-drinking, sexually charged New Yorker who pursues sex with seemingly any man — as well as the occasional woman — who so much as looks his way. It’s not until Ben meets Sam (Sheldon Brown), who tries to resist Ben’s charms, that Cicada morphs into a romantic drama about a young same-sex couple’s attempts to connect and communicate, and the multitude of issues that each brings to bear.
The quietly powerful film is one of those rare breeds of film that manages to get livelier and brighter the deeper and darker it gets. It explores, to varying degrees, issues of abuse and trauma, race and interracial dynamics, internalized homophobia and antigay violence, and family relationships and acceptance.
Cicada even veers into black comedy territory — partly aided by the skilled comedians in its supporting cast, chief among them Saturday Night Live‘s Bowen Yang. There are the occasional duds, with 30 Rock‘s Scott Adsit as Ben’s glib and lackadaisical doctor. Yet Fifer’s consistently sharp writing and directing, as well as his genuine rapport and chemistry with Brown, who is credited with helping flesh out the story, keeps Cicada flying above the fray.
Cicada screens as part of this year’s Reel Affirmations Film Festival. For more information about the festival or to purchase tickets or festival screening passes, visit https://reelaffirmations.eventive.org.
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