Early on in “Cicada,” a secondary character drops the old maxim, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, that art is never finished, only abandoned. It’s a pointed moment of self-awareness in a film of many. Writer-director-producer-editor-star Matthew Fifer’s debut feature processes lived experience into a cracked, anguished work of autofiction, raggedly cathartic and needfully unresolved as it sketches young queer lives in different stages of self-acceptance. Delicately tracing the first summery blush of romance between two Brooklyn men respectively hindered by their own private trauma, “Cicada” is self-indulgent in the most forgivable, even fruitful, way, with stretches of nervy improvisation and everyday poetry that feel aptly rough and bruised. Nothing here seems to have been finished, or even abandoned, with ease.
In a normal year, “Cicada” would have completed a comprehensive tour of the LGBTQ festival circuit, picking up a word-of-mouth following along the way: It was originally set to world-premiere as the opening film of the British Film Institute’s Flare fest back in March, before the global pandemic instead led to a delayed arrival at Outfest Los Angeles in September. (The BFI replaced the Flare date, meanwhile, with a London Film Festival spot this month.) That it’s now finding audiences via virtual festival platforms isn’t entirely a loss in the case of “Cicada,” the close, murmury intimacy of which is quite well suited to a personal viewing environment — as is its discomfiting engagement with themes of abuse, violent homophobia and the scars they leave behind.
Though he shares directing credit with Kieran Mulcare, Fifer has given himself a lot to handle here. The themes of his debut, which also expand into discussions of interracial dating, closeted identity and sex addition, are challenging enough without the complication of self-portraiture, and some are addressed more acutely than others. Still, its patches of vagueness and uncertainty at least feel true to the unformed character of Fifer’s alter ego Ben, a white Long Island native eking out a drifting, tentative existence in Brooklyn. Alternating between office temping and, in his words, “painting apartments for Upper East Side DILFs,” he resists permanence both in his employment and his bisexual array of one-night stands — at least until he picks up handsome Black data-tech expert Sam (Sheldon Brown) at Strand Books, and finds himself unfamiliarly in love.
The directors and cinematographer Eric Schleicher capture the chatty, shimmery, uncertain early days of courtship in gauzy afternoon light, at one point shooting a light getting-to-know-you conversation as a reflection in the pond at Washington Square Park — with glinting, inconstant ripples implying the men’s various secrets and blind spots. The visual language of “Cicada” isn’t always as bluntly symbolic as this. Multiple glitchy, cryptic interludes merge dream imagery and youthful memory flashes to clue us into the root of Ben’s psychological unrest: It becomes clear that he was sexually molested as a child, though the details of the experience are kept from us, just as he’s kept them from even his closest friends and family for the better part of 20 years.
Sam’s truth, meanwhile, emerges in one long, stumbling verbal flood, beautifully performed by Brown — also bringing his own personal history to the script, with a story credit for his candor. At first he simply seems shy and standoffish; as it turns out, he’s still physically and emotionally wounded from having been shot in the street by a bigoted stranger some years before. Sam’s PTSD is entangled in his struggle to reconcile his race with his sexuality, which he keeps concealed from family and colleagues; Ben, though not long out of the closet himself, is impatient and insensitive to these frictions and nuances of identity.
Fifer’s loose, porous screenplay is tensest and most interesting when it parses these crossed wires of pain and privilege, showing how a mutual burden of trauma doesn’t amount to immediate empathy. His and Brown’s performances switch on a dime from rhythmically, sexily synched — not least in the film’s restrained but coolly visceral sex scenes — to nervously at odds, with their body language clashing and unresponsive. There’s far more bristling human truth to these scenes than those shared by Fifer and Cobie Smulders as Ben’s zany, straight-talking therapist, a capital-C Character who seems to have sauntered in from a different, broader movie, even as she extracts troubling raw confessions from the protagonist.
Whether this tonal disconnect is intended, perhaps as some kind of comment on the opposing approaches of professional therapy and self-analysis, is open to question. But they sit oddly in a film that is most persuasive when it trades in unaffected, spontaneous demonstrations of human connection, hostility and erotic desire. “Cicada” is good and tender on feelings, but also on flesh and bodies, and the ways they sometimes fill in for inadequate words. And it’s a film where the horny yelps of two men having sex in a dingy shared apartment are shown spilling out into the humid street, merely becoming part of a natural, textured soundscape: a modern urban equivalent of the cicadas’ evening chorus.