screen gems

Of trauma and gay sex: unraveling the riddle of ‘Cicada’

Cicada

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Sleeper: Cicada

We fell in love with this film on the festival circuit back in 2020. It stealthily arrived on streaming late last year, late enough that we didn’t have a chance to include it as one of the most awesome queer films of 2021. It certainly deserves the distinction.

Cicada tells the story of Ben (co-director and co-writer Matt Fifer), a horny bisexual man always on the make for a new sexual encounter. When he crosses paths with the handsome Sam (co-writer Sheldon Brown), a one-off hook-up won’t do. Together, the two men begin to explore their attraction to one another, and discover deep and violent pain buried deep within themselves. Ben suffers from a nasty case of hypochondria, and refuses to discuss the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Sam had a near-death encounter years before that left him physically and emotionally scarred. He also can’t bring himself to come out as gay to his father. Cobie Smulders, Bowen Yang, and Jason Green also have supporting turns.

Set firmly in 2013, Cicada meditates on a changing society: one in which the specter of the AIDS crisis has begun to fade, and in which the cries for racial justice have become renewed, sex crimes against boys have come to the fore, and masculinity remains an ever-fragile idiom. Fifer, along with co-director Kieran Mulcare, also populate the movie with background references to the Jerry Sandusky trial and the resurgence of cicadas, a locus-like insect that emerges from dormancy every 13-17 years. Much like the cicadas that plague the midwest every decade and a half, the buried traumas Matt and Ben suffered rear their ugly heads often when both men believe they’ve moved past them.

In our conversation with Fifer and Brown, the pair discussed how their real-life traumas directly influenced the script. Fifer is a victim of sexual abuse, while Brown was actually shot–the scars his character shows off in the film are not make-up. That gives Cicada an uncanny resonance: we feel like we’re watching an act of therapeutic confession as much as a drama unfold.

In the same way, both men give powerful performances, though we’re not sure they’re always acting in the traditional sense. Rather, their emotions, their words, almost have a documentary-like quality to them. To be clear, that doesn’t diminish their performances or the power of the film in any way. Actors always strive to make their characters as authentic as possible. Fifer and Brown just use a shortcut to get to something absolute, and to great effect.

Movies seldom get to the level of naked pain and honesty Cicada does. Drama, at its best, doesn’t tell a “real” story so much as a true one–a fundamental tale of honest emotion and human nature. Cicada tells a true story and a real one which makes digesting its layers ever-more intriguing. It’s a haunting, touching, and, at times, frightening reflection on trauma, sex, love, and manhood as well as a unique experience in cinema, and one of the most awesomely queer films of 2021.

Streams on Amazon, VUDU & YouTube.