Written and directed by Australian filmmakers Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes in their feature debut, Sissy is a beguiling and thematically complex horror film about friendship, childhood trauma and mental health in the digital age. Following the film’s well-received premiere at SXSW as part of the festival’s celebrated Midnighters section (and ahead of its UK premiere at FrightFest in August), Our Culture reviews the film here as part of its selection from the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Cecilia (Aisha Dee) is a successful influencer and mental health advocate who produces content promoting mindfulness (and, rather less admirably, consumer products she is generously paid to advertise). As she tells her hundreds of thousands of followers: she is loved, she is special, she is enough. That is, at least, until she bumps into Emma (Hannah Barlow), her estranged best friend. The two rekindle a relationship that died when they were just thirteen years old, and soon Emma has invited Cecilia – or ‘Sissy,’ as she once knew her – to attend a hen party ahead of her marriage to Fran (Lucy Barrett). Ceclia accepts and joins Emma, Fran, Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks) on a road trip to an isolated holiday home. There, they meet up with Alex (Emily De Margheriti), the grudge-bearing bully who stole Cecilia’s best friend from her all those years ago. They try and fail to bury the hatchet, and soon blood begins to flow.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Sissy is how morally grey it is. While the synopsis above might suggest that the film wants us to sympathise with its eponymous protagonist, Barlow and Senes’s screenplay refuses to definitively put any one character in the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of its narrative scenario; the filmmakers try to shift our allegiances several times as details about the past relationships between Cecilia, Emma and Alex are slowly revealed. We are initially drawn to Cecilia because it is abundantly obvious how much trauma and pain she has carried from childhood into her adult life, but it soon becomes clear that the same is true of Alex.
Admittedly, Cecilia is the character who is most developed, and we are given access to her thoughts, memories and dreams (or, more accurately, nightmares). In fact, much of the film seems to be filtered through her point of view; lensed by veteran cinematographer Steve Arnold, the frame is dominated by serene natural landscapes and characters clothed in bright colours and pastel hues, cleverly aping the beautiful but ultimately fabricated aesthetics of Cecilia’s online content. Only later does Sissy descend into darkness, as the tense hen party devolves into shocking violence.
This could result in two opposing readings of the film. Because we are aligned with her, Cecilia’s actions in the film’s third and second acts might be seen as triumphant revenge against past tormentors. Or, because we see the film’s world through her distorted point of view, perhaps Sissy suggests that the influencer’s unhealthy reliance on frequent but fleeting online affirmation has prevented her from confronting her past and learning to negotiate real-world relationships. In fact, a parallel is created between Cecilia and reality television stars hungry for adoration as Tracey and Jamie discuss the constructed nature of their favourite show, Paradise Lust (a thinly-veiled parody of Love Island).
But, in truth, what elevates Sissy above the average psychological horror film is its refusal to take a side. Cecilia, Emma and Alex are all haunted by the events of their youth, they all wear masks that conceal their true selves, and all three of them have their fair share of trauma and guilt to bear. It’s no surprise, then, that the film is propelled by excellent central performances from Dee, Barlow and De Margheriti as three women who are in many ways very different but share one thing in common: they all want to project a certain image of themselves to the world while something much darker lurks beneath their Instagram smiles.
So the central message of Sissy is that we can’t walk away from trauma, but we can walk away from people: that there are friends and acquaintances in our lives who simply aren’t good for us and with whom relationships can’t and shouldn’t be reconciled. Glitter is a recurring visual motif in the film, drawn from the polish that Cecilia and Emma once used to paint each other’s nails when they were twelve years old. But Sissy makes abundantly clear that no amount of glitter can cover the cavernous cracks in their friendship, and that the film’s entire series of unfortunate and grisly events could have been averted if they had simply chosen to leave each other in the past.
And grisly is an appropriate word for Sissy, which boasts some truly jaw-dropping special effects designed by Larry Van Duynhoven, who also worked on Australian genre films Cargo (2017), Upgrade (2018), The Nightingale (2018) and Relic (2020). For while this might be a captivating character study, it is also an effective horror film. Those seeking gore will certainly find what they are looking for in Sissy’s final act, when the gloves come off, the knives come out, and old wounds start to bleed.