Table of Contents
Cicada IMDB description: “A New York love story that toes the line between narrative and doc with two actors reliving parts of their own experiences.”
Sublet IMDB description: “A New York Times travel writer comes to Tel Aviv after suffering a tragedy. The energy of the city and his relationship with a younger man brings him back to life.”
Why I Took Them off the List: After checking out the comedy/drama Miss Stevens (2016), I felt like continuing on a lighter note and checking out a recent romantic drama I’d been hearing good things about in time for Valentine’s Day.
And, as I’m feeling generous, I decided to make it a Double Feature review, so you get two similarly-themed gay romances that I think would make for a good back-to-back watch. So, let’s dig in!
Review of Cicada
As much as I love the low-key gay romance Weekend (2011), I always felt like the fixed expiration date for the relationship it portrays didn’t really inspire much confidence in the prospect of a long-term romantic union between two men and the kinds of obstacles that need to be overcome to make it work. Luckily, more and more cinematic outings are starting to address this under-explored subject matter on film, like 2019’s End of the Century, and, now, Cicada.
Cicada also follows in the footsteps of 2017’s God’s Own Country in presenting the resonant story of a protagonist mired in endless quick hook-ups who has to overcome their own issues in order to achieve real intimacy. Although Cicada is overall far lighter in tone than that earlier intense entry in the genre, it also tackles some difficult subject matter, as, like the title suggests, something long-buried comes back to cause those on the surface some serious problems.
What makes Cicada unique is that it’s heavily based on the experiences of actor/co-director Matthew Fifer and co-written with the other lead, Sheldon D.Brown, and so feels intensely personal at times. Although it never loses sight of the sweet love story at its center, it’s more of a portrait of trauma and recovery, and the difficult process of letting go of long-buried, harmful secrets.
Although protagonist Ben is on a somewhat dark journey, when he eventually does manage to reveal his truth, it feels incredibly cathartic, and even leads of a couple of very funny interactions reminiscent of some of the humor in the excellent series I May Destroy You, with which Cicada shares a lot of similar themes.
Impressively Naturalistic and Beautifully Acted
The low-key story of Cicada could almost be a stage play, but it’s capably brought to life on screen through an impressively naturalistic approach and some beautiful, pastel-hued photography of New York City. The actors bring a real intimacy and authenticity to the story, and Fifer is believable and incredibly charming as Ben, particularly in a scene where he seduces his would-be beau Sam over a debate about the literary merits of The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar.
Sheldon D. Brown is also convincing in a performance brimming with vulnerability, especially during a gripping monologue where he confesses a traumatic past experience of his own. Brown expertly conveys Sam’s uncertainly and alienation, and it’s heartwarming to watch the character gradually open himself up to the possibility of love and acceptance.
The addition of Cobie Smulders in a small role as Ben’s unorthodox, beer-swilling therapist feels a little like stunt casting designed to boost the profile of the film. But even so, the actress still delivers a winning performance full of funny quirks in just a couple of short scenes. Sandra Bauleo also leaves a strong impression as Ben’s empathetic, caring mother who nevertheless remains oblivious to the deep pain that is slowly consuming him.
Final Score: 7/10
Worth Checking Out?
Yes. Although it goes to some dark and uncomfortable places and is not as much of the feel-good romance that the colorful posters and trailers suggest, Cicada handles its themes in a mature and sensitive manner and is ultimately a sweet and optimistic love story.
Written by Matthew Fifer, Sheldon D. Brown (additional story by)
Cast: Matthew Fifer, Sheldon D. Brown, Cobie Smulders
Review of Sublet
A far more conventional gay romance narrative than Cicada, Sublet follows a world-weary New York travel writer as he arrives in Tel Aviv for an assignment, only to form an bond with the care-free young guy he is subletting an apartment from.
It plays as a relatively conventional rom-com about a mismatched pair, and in its early (slow) going relies a bit too heavily on basic culture-clash comedy, such as the mild-mannered American becoming irritated by loud music and messy living spaces. Luckily, things pick up when the central pair have their first real ‘date’, as the two leads have an easy chemistry together, and you quickly begin to warm to their unlikely romance.
Although a handsomely shot portrait of Tel Aviv, the film can at times feel like a blatant extended tourist advertisement designed to attract middle-aged gay men to the Israeli city. Saying that, though, the film does have some interesting insights to share about local youth culture, gentrification, and the generational differences between the two gay men. It’s also admirable for going for an understated finale that doesn’t pretend to a neatly resolved happy ending.
John Benjamin Hickey Shines
Despite the familiar story, Sublet has some other unique elements that elevate it above unremarkable romantic drama status, including some fun visual surprises that stem from the younger guy’s love of making cheesy student horror films. The best thing that it has going for it, however, is John Benjamin Hickey (In Treatment) as the stuffy older man who gradually begins to loosen up.
Hickey projects an agreeable warmth into a man visibly consumed by melancholia and is genuinely moving in some scenes, including one in which he simply wearily inspects his aging features in a mirror. He’s deeply affecting and pretty heartbreaking delivering a speech about losing the baby he and his husband planned to conceive through surrogacy.
The actor also gets the chance to show his funny side in an unexpected seduction involving a pair of sock puppets and is adorably nerdy in a scene where he confronts his dormant sexuality while dressed in a pair of granddad pajamas.
Final Score: 6/10
Worth Checking Out?
Almost single-handedly due to John Benjamin Hickey’s great performance, yes. If you’re looking for a gentle, undemanding romantic comedy for Valentine’s Day, then you could do worse than the agreeable Sublet.
Directed by Eytan Fox
Written by Eytan Fox, Itay Segal