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Cicada-movie-review-matt-fifer-sheldon-d-bown
The BFI London Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Cicada (2020)

A cicada is an insect that remains buried for 17 years, but then explodes out of the ground singing its very loud song. Ben (Matt Fifer, who also wrote and co-directed) has a fair few secrets, made obvious from the start as he pansexually shags his way around Manhattan in the aftermath of a break-up. But eventually he has a meet-cute with Sam (Sheldon D. Brown) at the carts outside The Strand bookstore. The relationship that unfolds between the men means that not a lot will remain buried for long.

The main issue with the film is twofold. One, it is tiresome past cliché to see a movie about a white person’s trauma when they have a black partner with just as much trauma whose story and experiences are sidelined. When Sam opens up to Ben, both emotionally and physically, it seemed for a brief moment that the movie would be about how a pair of young men grow and change together. But no. The framing of the movie is uninterested in the work Sam has done to cope with becoming physically disabled, despite his problems being ongoing and consistent. Sam’s success at overcoming this massive physical trauma is only touched at in a few scenes, which focus more on Ben’s reaction to Sam’s upset. The kindest thing that can be said about this is that it’s not a good look.

The second issue with the film is that it then sidelines Sam’s disability and equates Ben’s hidden trauma with Sam’s refusal to tell his father (Michael Potts) that he is gay. This is problematic in the extreme, and cannot properly be discussed without spoilers, but suffice to say it’s one of the most gaspingly insensitive things shown onscreen in a long time. The way in which Ben’s trauma is discussed is primarily though his repeated visits to a kind doctor (Scott Adsit), although his eventual visits to a therapist (Cobie Smulders, in an uncredited cameo as effective as Robin Williams’s in “Dead Again”) finally make the difference, which maddens as no such help is offered to Sam. The fact of Ben’s gayness and the fact of Ben’s trauma are, despite the parallels made with Sam’s life, treated as two entirely separate things, which is also unlikely, and an unusually coy choice.

It is such a shame that the movie makes these choices, because there is a great deal of interest here, about disability, difficult families, the price of keeping secrets, the use of sex as a coping mechanism and whether “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is actually an appropriate story for kids. There are some wonderful Manhattan street scenes, including a gorgeous sequence filmed in Washington Square Park, where a flirting Ben and Sam are reflected in the entirely still fountain. The use of radio news reports as an ongoing plot device is cleverly done. Mr. Fifer has an unusually good eye for making the most of cramped private spaces, both in tiny apartments but also in the body. And Mr. Brown has a gorgeous singing voice, but the two songs he performs are so expensive to license that the movie is unlikely to receive widespread distribution based on that alone.

But most importantly it’s deeply frustrating to watch a movie in which all the elements for something brilliant are right there but combined in the worst way. Mr. Fifer is clearly very close to the material – the movie begins with “based on true events,” which feels like a cynical attempt to forestall criticism – and perhaps would have better served the story by handing over his directing duties to someone, anyone, else. That might have prevented the problematic parts of “Cicada” swallowing the movie it should have been.

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