BFI London Film Festival: ‘Cicada’ Review

BFI’s London Film Festival is in town! The FilmSoc Blog is back for the 64th edition of one of Europe’s largest film festivals, delivering a first look at the hits and misses of the 2020-21 season.

Editor-in-chief Pihla Pekkarinen reviews Cicada, a semi-autobiographical film about exploring sexuality and finding love in New York City.

Before the event was cancelled, Cicada was set to open the 2020 London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, BFI Flare. Matt Fifer’s debut feature is a semi-autobiographical film about his experiences as a queer person in New York City, toeing the line between documentary and fiction. The expectation is a gentle, intimate queer narrative on finding love and facing your demons. But the final product, overconfident in the strength of its themes and characters, falls flat.

Fifer stars as Ben, an introverted bisexual man who has recently come out and is freely exploring his sexuality with less-than-strangers. He has little interest in long-term relationships – that is, until he meets Sam (played by co-writer Sheldon D. Brown), a quiet, musical man who is still closeted and doesn’t like to hold hands in public. Over the course of the film, we watch their relationship grow from casual to serious as each of them wrestles with their demons: Ben unpacks his childhood trauma, while Sam overcomes his fear of publicly expressing his sexuality.

The film is composed of very short scenes and snippets of conversations, often covered with just one or two shots. The resulting effect is almost like looking through a kaleidoscope: you are given the pieces but asked to compose the image yourself. As viewers, we find ourselves looking for recurrent details, overarching points to anchor the disjointed narrative and bring it all together. Instead, the snippets in Cicada feel like unfinished drawings that give us the roughest of sketches without filling in the details. We are left with only the outlines of a story – a dissatisfying gesture towards a fairly compelling narrative.

In reaching for ‘quiet and contemplative’, the film often finds ‘disjointed and narcissistic’ instead. Putting your true self on screen requires a certain degree of introspection and self-awareness that this autobiographical film does not quite possess. Fifer does not spend enough time on characterisation to try and convince us that Ben is interesting, because he believes himself to be interesting. What we end up with is a generic character who lacks the necessary charisma to lead the movie. His partner Sam seems more compelling, but the film is so centred around Fifer’s character that we do not get to spend enough time with Sam to know for sure. The result is a central romance that fails to spark compassion in the viewer. As the couple struggles to save their relationship, we often can’t bring ourselves to care whether they make it or not.

A highlight of the film is Cobie Smulders’ (How I Met Your Mother) turn as Ben’s less-than-competent therapist. She provides some much-needed lightheartedness, and her comedy far outranks the rest of the jokes in the film. Ben is a fan of sarcasm and self-deprecation, but he never merits more than a chuckle, whereas Smulders earns a full out laugh. It’s a shame, therefore, that Cicada doesn’t use Smulders to her fullest. She only appears in two scenes, and even then the film seems almost scared of how good she is, following up her jokes with a blunt change in tone to a more serious topic instead of allowing her to shine.

Overall, the film feels very obviously like a debut. Fresh and unpracticed, the filmmakers behind it haven’t quite mastered bringing out their unique voices yet. Cicada has the air of a student film: slightly pretentious, obviously autobiographical, and not quite interesting. But here and there, it shows signs of potential. Maybe give Fifer a few years. 

‘Cicada’ was shown at the BFI London Film Festival. Watch a clip here:

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