Cicada: Despite a major flaw, there’s much to enjoy in this Manhattan romance

Review: This impressive drama has the compact shape of an elegant short story

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Director: Matthew Fifer, Kieran Mulcare
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Matthew Fifer, Sheldon Brown, Sandra Bauleo, Cobie Smulders, Michael Potts, Scott Adsit, David Burtka, Bowen Yang, Jo Firestone
Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins

This impressive drama has about it the whiff of a post-Brief Encounter romance such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise or Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. There is the same dynamic of a casual encounter leading to increasingly entwined connection. But Cicada does not play out on such a tight timeframe. Ben and Matt meet at a bookshop and, over a few weeks, tease out secrets and traumas. Ben (Matthew Fifer), an awkward hypochondriac still processing childhood abuse, and Sam (Sheldon D Brown), who, though apparently more confident, has not yet come out to his family, work their way towards those changes while meandering about an attractively shot New York city. Why does it seem in the same category as those stories of more hurried moments? It is something to do with the script’s taste for extending a conversation over several encounters. Though there are some clunking flaws (more in a mo), Cicada has the compact shape of an elegant short story – open-ended, yet not incomplete.

The performances are nicely complementary. Matt Fifer, who also co-directs with Kieran Mulcare, makes a bit of a duffer of poor Ben. Apparently bisexual, he is socially adept enough to score on a regular basis, but he is forever plaguing his doctor with imagined nausea and semi-imagined lesions. Resisting the temptation to lean into Woody Allen territory, Fifer gives us a sense of the buried unease that manifests itself in such low-level psychosis. Sam, a black data-technology expert, thinks he has his own complications under control, but Ben's questioning draws him out.

Cicada is one of those titles that invites the awful cliché claiming “New York itself is a character in the film”. We can only apologise. Shot on location, featuring integrated bursts of improvisation, the film highlights unchanging highlights of Gotham life. A glimpse of the Empire State Building from Washington Square Park. Tunnels in Central Park. Extended stretches could take place in the 1970s.

That attractive ambience and those well-worked performances point to cohesive thinking from the filmmakers. It is, thus, all the more baffling that they punctuate the action with misconceived sequences in which Cobie Smulders – what are you doing here? – plays an apparently barmy therapist who offers Ben fortune-cookie wisdom. How did apparent cast-offs from a much worse, much less subtle film end up in the final cut? Most puzzling. Otherwise excellent.


 Released on January 21st

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist