The opening minutes of “Cicada” are a blur, following Ben (Matthew Fifer) in and out of bars and bedrooms at a rapid clip in which the young man doesn’t say much, but the action would seem to do all the talking. His sister Amber can be heard asking whether he’s back into men after being just months removed from leaving his fiancée, a question you already know the answer to as he indulges in one-night stands with little consideration of gender and while there’s a certain rhythm to the encounters, it’s clear in the way that “Cicada” is pieced together that Ben’s mind isn’t keeping pace with his body, moving fast through life so as not to think about what ails him.
There are idiosyncracies throughout “Cicada,” the feature directorial debut of Fifer and Kieran Mulcare – once things slow down for Ben upon meeting a potentially steadying soulmate in Sam (Sheldon D. Brown, intriguingly credited with a “Character By” acknowledgment), the film tempers his reticence with eccentric bursts of humor from the world around him — and it’s what ultimately makes the drama so compelling, distinctively exploring how its lead character comes to find out truths about himself on his own time. After meeting Sam at the dollar racks outside the Strand Bookstore, there is an all-too-brief moment in which it feels as if the stars have aligned, suddenly talking more in a minute than the 20 that have led up to it, recalling his time in bible camp and his old cats Pinky and the Brain. But cinematographer Eric Schleicher shrewdly points the camera towards a reflective pool in a city park as Ben loosens up around Sam, giving a slightly warped quality to this meet cute that is an indication of things to come between the pair, who find that race is in issue in their relationship – more in perception than reality for the African-American Sam, who’s uncomfortable around Ben’s white friends – and Ben’s reluctance to open up even to those closest to him for reasons that gradually reveal themselves.
It’s perfect when Sam beautifully performs an unusually arranged rendition of “Love Me Do,” angry afterwards for being goaded into doing it at a party he didn’t want to be at in the first place, and “Cicada” so often plays the same way as Ben sits on a secret that prevents him from being happy, but the film strives to entertain with visits to his doctors whether it’s his barely professional physician (Scott Adsit) who jokingly suggests not to eat when he complains of a throat blockage — the diagnosis it could be “anything from a mass in his throat to MS” doesn’t help — or his newly acquired psychotherapist (Cobie Smulders) who keeps one eye on him during sessions while keeping her other on her dog Klonopin. The odd pace paired with its peculiar sense of humor proves to be endearing, and genuinely insightful as Ben reconciles what he’s experiencing internally when everything is shaped by the past with living in the moment, as everyone else around him is. By the time he catches up, you realize the film’s always been one step ahead, evocatively expressing what it’s like to come to terms with who you are.