It’s pathetic that gay American moviegoers (at least this one) are still starved for representation onscreen in the mainstream. But luckily, indies are shouldering that burden, pulling gay characters often relegated to the margins or side-plots into the center of the action. Matt Fifer and co-director Kieran Mulcare’s feature debut “Cicada” is a lush, erotic, and touching New York-set drama that Fifer co-directed, wrote, produced, edited, and starred in, and it’s a standout example of a gay story done right. As a searching autobiographical portrait of the director’s own life, his struggles with intimacy, and buried childhood trauma, “Cicada” feels like a private confessional. But it also pinpoints the very specific plight of being a gay millennial navigating romance amid a Grindr-dominated paradigm.
Ben (Fifer) is a Brooklyn dweller patching together a life in the gig economy, holding a vaguely sketched desk job when he’s not painting houses or doing home repairs for pushy older queens who like to leer at his tight clothes (or lack thereof). His personal life is otherwise empty, a string of benders and hook-ups. This is all a means to shove something under the rug, even if we don’t know what it is yet. Nights are empty amorous encounters, and mornings are hangovers and STD checks. He has an unhealthy relationship to hypochondria abetted by a ritualistic testing routine with his doctor (Scott Adsit), who doesn’t believe Ben has any actual ailments.
This coasting through life is interrupted when he meets Sam (Sheldon D. Brown, who also has a writing credit), a tall drink of water who works in data analysis, outside a bookstore. A few jokes about Nietzsche, and they’re canceling plans and off into the night. Their relationship quickly gets serious, and it surfaces turning points for both men: Sam comes clean about the fact that he’s not out to his religious father, and Ben admits, probably for the first time to anyone, that he was sexually abused as a child. Sam also carries PTSD after being shot suddenly in the street a few years ago, and this trifecta of hang-ups and traumas, surprisingly, leads to Ben’s probably healthiest relationship ever.
While you might expect the character to reject that closeness and instead try to blow up his life in flight from it, Ben is mostly all-in. This newfound love forces him to confront all his emotional baggage, partly with the help of Cobie Smulders as a kooky therapist. Formal and supporting casting choices also make the movie pop, with songs from Grizzly Bear and Tune-Yards, and a gaggle of charming characters played by Bowen Yang and Jason “Freckle” Greene, among others.
In the background of all this, former football coach Jerry Sandusky is being outed as a sexual predator on cable news, casting a sinister pallor over the events. The seemingly tragic trajectories of Ben and Sam don’t lead where you’d suspect. Fifer, in his screenplay and direction, steers clear from the fatalistic path of other films about gay men confronting their identities, where gay love either fails (“Call Me By Your Name”) or gay love kills (“Brokeback Mountain”).
Fifer’s seductively told, bittersweet narrative shares closer kinship to Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” as well as Haigh’s work on the too-short-lived HBO series “Looking,” as a modern-day portrait of gay men that observes without unnecessarily inserting melodrama. The lack of dramatic incident in “Cicada,” however, occasionally makes it challenging to parse Ben’s emotional arc: he remains a mostly placidly keeled cypher throughout.
Thankfully, his chemistry with Sam is a swoon, and the graphic and erotic sex scenes don’t hurt, either, as the camera looms upon the rippling muscles of backs rising and falling, dripping with summer-in-New-York heat at dusk. Fifer is a straight-up Adonis, and his frequently nude or near-nude states occasionally tip “Cicada” into the territory of an extended thirst trap. Fifer is a better director and writer than actor, but you can’t be good at everything, especially when the limitations of indies require doing quadruple duty and often more. But given the film’s autobiographical underpinning, “Cicada” is a sexy, sometimes searing act of self-analysis that hopefully not only brings Fifer some proximity to catharsis, but also a steady career in indie queer filmmaking in his future.
An Outfest encore screening of “Cicada” plays virtually on September 2. Head to the festival’s website for details. The film is currently seeking U.S. distribution.