New York, 2013. Ben is “back on the dick”, only 5 months after he was supposed to be getting married. He’s been busy in the intervening time, though – an early scene shows a montage of him having joyless sex with a series of people, both men and women. But now he’s in love, and working on a relationship with Sam, who he met outside the Strand bookshop.
Your reaction to the scene where Ben and Sam meet may give you a sense of whether you’ll go with this film. Seeing that Sam is flicking through “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, Ben bangs on about it being one of Nietzsche’s more difficult works, and that he killed himself shortly after completing the book. I think you’re supposed to find this shtick charming, but to me it was just pretentious and vain.
We witness Ben and Sam getting to know each other, playing basketball, looking out from the rooftop at the New York landscape, going to the fair at Coney Island. And of course having a lot of sex. These shared intimate moments are clearly of deep significance to the young lovers. But they weren’t meant to be shared with anyone else, and the audience is asked to watch from afar, in a slightly voyeuristic fashion.
Both Ben and Sam are clearly carrying emotional baggage. Sam comes from a religious family, and is the only black person at work. He has not come out to either his widowed father or his workmates. He is also literally carrying the scars of a hate crime – when he was the targeted victim of a shooting. We generally only hear about Sam’s problem in passing, as the film is largely centred around Ben.
Ben has also been traumatised. He regularly wakes up sweating with memories of a small boy in ringlets. Although his doctor assures him that there’s nothing physically wrong with him, he’s sent to a kooky psychiatrist straight out of central casting, who would be struck off if she existed in the real world. We only learn about the source of Ben’s trauma in the last half hour, but I think we’ve been able to make a good guess long before then.
Given their respective problems, it’s not surprizing that the relationship between Ben and Sam has its hiccoughs. After a dinner party with Ben’s friends, Sam is worried that Ben is only going out with him to show how woke he is. An incident with a backfiring car reminds Sam of his earlier trauma. They bicker, they make up, as best they can, they help each other deal with their problems.
There is enough here for a film to get its teeth into, and so far Cicada has received almost unanimously positive reviews. I can see why. It feels authentic, and if representation means anything, it is that there should many more films about relationships which just don’t stick to tired old stories about white, CIS, straight stereotypes.
But saying that it is good that Cicada is out there, does not mean that I actually enjoyed it. For me at least, it was painfully dull. I’ve mentioned already that I feel that we’re intruding on private joy – the love between Ben and Sam feels somehow personal, and something they should be left to enjoy on their own. This is not a problem unique to Cicada – all romance stories must deal with this somehow.
The opening titles say that the story is “based on real events”, and writer/director Matthew Fifer also plays Ben. This story obviously means a lot to him, and is based to a greater or lesser extent on his own personal experiences. Respect to him for opening up on this, but it feels somehow wrong to treat such distress as entertainment. And yet the film is too light and superficial to seriously present the problems with any serious depth.
In many scenes, we hear radio reports of the Sandusky trial, when an American football coach was found guilty of abusing young boys. If this is just a dramatic device, then fair enough. Such reports could very well trigger both Ben and Sam’s fragile sense of self-worth and cause them to blame themselves for their own predicament. But it feels like there is a more sinister implication – though I’m not sure that the film knows what to do with this.
In short, I can understand why people both welcome and enjoy Cicada, but try as I might, it did nothing for me. It’s just over an hour and a half, but still managed to drag. I think my central problem was that I didn’t like Ben, and found him very superficial. In a film which is mainly focussed on him, this is a serious problem. Other views are available, and I’m glad that not everyone has been as dissatisfied as I was.