Sissy (2021)

Sissy had its world première at SXSW 2022

At the beginning of Sissy, from co-writing/co-directing team Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes (For Now, 2017), we see online influencer Cecilia (Aisha Dee) preaching the bland bromides of wellness. Yet the hyperventilation exercise that Cecilia has been demonstrating seems not a little unhinged, and as the recording comes to an end, it is revealed that the calming pink background against which Cecilia has been filming herself is a small set in an apartment which is otherwise messy-looking, even chaotic. In other words, Cecilia may successfully talk the talk of self-care, but it is all façade – a show for the 200,000+ followers whose approval and validation Cecilia constantly needs. Indeed, Cecilia is defined by neediness. “I am loved, I am special”, runs the mantra which she recites whenever she is stressed – but even as she tries to convince herself of its truth, she is also betraying her deep self-doubt. 

Though something of an arrested adult, Cecilia is an adult nonetheless – and the plot of Sissy is set in motion by the arrival of her period, forcing her to make an emergency trip to the pharmacist’s. There, for the first time in decades, she runs into Emma (Barlow). In primary school, they were ‘best friends forever’, utterly inseparable – until a playground incident did separate them. Emma has long since moved on, and is now about to marry her girlfriend Fran (Lucy Barrett) – and, overjoyed to be reacquainted, she invites Cecilia to join herself and Fran and their friends Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks) for the hen party weekend at a luxury house out in the remote bush. Cecilia, however, has not moved on – and when she learns that Alex (Emily de Margheriti), the school bully who drove a wedge between Cecilia and Emma, will also be there, all the old anxieties resurface. Cecilia is still very much traumatised by what happened in her childhood, even if it is Alex who bears the actual scars from their brief encounter – and now, all the old tensions are about to make a vicious, bloody return, as childish disputes have very adult consequences.

Cecilia used to go by the nickname Sissy, until Alex cruelly appropriated the name as a term of mocking abuse, leading to Cecilia’s loss of innocence. Now, Cecilia goes by her full name, even if those that knew her before keep reverting to calling her ‘Sissy’, and triggering the trauma now associated with that name. The two names – and the slippage between them – capture something of her character, split between a sweet exterior and a more disturbed interior. This split is also conveyed by the film’s varied range of references to other Australian titles. On the one hand, Cecilia’s socially awkward efforts to find friendship and love, even among not-very-nice company at a wedding party, align her to Muriel Heslop from P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding (1994) – and indeed at one point she is shown wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a resonant line from P.J. Hogan’s film (“You’re terrible, Muriel”). All the bitchy in-fighting at the party is modulated through the Love Island-style reality TV show which these characters regularly watch on television. On the other hand, Ann Turner’s Australian classic of (among other things) childhood sociopathy Celia (1989) is evoked through both Cecilia’s similar name, and the marked resemblance of the actress who plays Young Emma (Camille Cumpston) to Celia‘s star Rebecca Smart. Meanwhile the presentation of all these events as a girl’s DayGlo pink fantasy, along with the escalating violence and gore, all point towards Sean Byrne’s serial-killing psycho-prom picture The Loved Ones (2009).

For all its initial fixation on playground squabbles and metrosexual revelry/rivalry, Sissy will eventually settle on the kind of grotesque body count familiar from the slasher genre, with the tone becoming ever more manic as the kills get ever more graphically brutal. There is a toxic tradition in this genre wherein any black character will be marginalised and marked as disposable by being the First To Die™, but Cecilia, played with great versatility by the mixed-race Dee, joins a small group of WOC horror heroines – McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) in Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls (2018) and Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown) in Alex Noyer’s Sound of Violence (2021) – who trump this trend and turn it on its head. Meanwhile, Barlow and Senes’ funny, subversive and uncomfortable feature uses its own uneasy duplicity to fight bullying, to win the viewer’s love and to maximise its hits, all in a socially mediated world where reality is virtual and image is everything. 

strap: Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes’ pink-tinged psychoslasher shows an arrested influencer confronting a bully – and trauma – from childhood

© Anton Bitel