Sissy Review – A Brutal, Chillingly Funny Film That Could Have Been More Engaging

Sissy, written and directed by Australian duo Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, is a brutal yet often chillingly funny examination of influencer culture and how much our collective dopamine levels are elevated by the external approval of strangers on social media – so much so that often the line between on and offline can become blurred. It’s also a gory slasher that is populated by truly awful characters whose increasingly violent deaths are a treat for gore hounds.

Cecilia (Aisha Dee) is a twenty-something influencer whose channel @sincerelyceclia disperses advice about mental health whilst simultaneously selling products to her thousands of followers. In the glow of the ring light Cecilia appears supremely confident and in charge of her life. Once the camera is off the audience is given a look at the real Cecilia’s existence which is one of a small and dirty apartment and day-old pizza for breakfast. As Cecilia reads through the masses of positive comments on her channel Barlow and Senes make the visceral connection to how the approval is rewriting Cecilia’s brain. She may be alone in her real life, but with so many adoring strangers reinforcing what a positive influence she is on their lives she can shut out reality and exist in the liminal space of online approbation.

Whilst in a chemist Cecilia runs into her childhood best friend Emma (Hannah Barlow). At first Cecilia tries to avoid the interaction but is won over by Emma’s warmness. Emma invites Cecilia (who she still calls by her childhood sobriquet, Sissy) to her pre-wedding party and she cautiously accepts. When Cecilia gives Emma her social media handle Emma is genuinely impressed that Cecilia has such a large online following. Social success is measured by this metric, but it isn’t long until the audience and others note that socialisation is not.

The party introduces us to Emma’s fiancé Fran (Lucy Barrett) and their friends Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks). For Cecilia the party is almost revelatory. She’s back with her best friend singing ‘Sister’ by Sister 2 Sister just as they did as tweens. The fact that Emma vomits all over Cecilia during their karaoke duo can’t dull her spirits. When Emma invites her to her Hen’s party get away weekend, Cecilia accepts.

What Emma fails to mention is that the woman hosting the remote weekend getaway is Cecilia’s childhood bully, Alex (Emily De Margheriti). An incident between the two on the playground led to an act of violence. Alex is appalled that Emma invited Cecilia and soon begins her bullying of Sissy again which triggers something inside Cecilia to revert to her Sissy persona – one that is meek, undemanding, and desperate for Emma’s approval. It also triggers in her something far more sinister.

No-one in the film is a character the audience can root for (perhaps for the character of Fran who is sidelined a little). Jamie and Tracey are vacuous and unpleasant. Alex is aggressive, and Emma is either extremely naïve or utterly thoughtless by bringing Alex and Cecilia together again after their history together. Thus when Cecilia starts to spiral into deeply unhinged territory the film dares the viewer to take a side by deliberately making partisanship impossible.

The third act of the film is gruesome and leans into slasher tropes. Sissy’s rampage is unrelenting. It’s also informed by satire. As Sissy buries someone she stops for long enough to record a video about replanting and how it is good for the planet and the soul. Her disconnect from reality is bitterly funny, but it also speaks to her terminal need to manufacture her personality. No matter how hard she tried to appeal to Emma and her friends, she was unable to.

Manufactured reality is a concept that Barlow and Senes explore in the film through multiple lenses. Tracey and Jamie are addicted to a reality show called ‘Paradise Lust.’ They know it isn’t real because they discuss the writing on the season, yet they still consume the content with suspended disbelief. The question about what is authentic is posed; @sincerelycecilia is not representative of Cecilia’s self, just as the childhood videos she treasures of herself and Emma are not representative of the friendship she thought they shared. Barlow and Senes take great joy in cutting through these concepts with primal level violence – the violence is of course over the top to suit the satire and to reinforce that the audience is watching a horror film. There’s something quite meta that the directors are attempting to say with the juxtaposition and perhaps with a bit more work on the script it would have been punchier.

Sissy has a certain self-awareness but there is more that could be done to make the film more engaging. In positioning Cecilia/Sissy as a cypher for social media culture the piece doesn’t really give her a solid psychological arc. She’s unhinged, she carries murderous rage, but why? Is it really a case of arrested development caused by childhood bullying, or was there always something wrong with her? Feasibly none of that really matters if the audience is looking for a violent horror/comedy with enough grisly kills to satisfy. On that level, Sissy delivers with winking glee. The social media satire is also well dispensed with the final scene making a good case for why people need to stop having para-social relationships with strangers on the internet – after all, who knows what is really going on in their lives?

Directors: Kane Senes, Hannah Barlow

Cast: Aisha Dee, Hannah Barlow, Daniel Monks

Writers: Hannah Barlow, Kane Senes

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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