March 12, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes
Culture Representation: Taking place in Canberra, Australia, the horror movie “Sissy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and one Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A social media influencer is invited to a weekend getaway party by a former childhood friend, and bitter emotions lead to murder and mayhem.
Culture Audience: “Sissy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that have a satirical tone.
The darkly comedic horror film “Sissy” sarcastically combines bloody gore with incisive commentary about friendships, bullying and social media culture. It’s a movie that might start off seeming to be one way, but some clever twists and turns take viewers on a bumpy and unpredictable ride. The scares aren’t so much in the violent and gruesome deaths but in the horror of how easily people can be manipulated into thinking certain ways about other people, based on contrived and superficial images. “Sissy” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
“Sissy” is written and directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, who previously teamed up for the 2017 comedy/drama feature film “For Now.” Barlow is also an actress in “For Now,” as she is in “Sissy.” The title character in “Sissy” (which takes place in Canberra, Australia) is named Cecilia (played by Aisha Dee), but her childhood nickname was Sissy. This childhood is shown in several flashbacks depicted through Cecilia’s memories and home videos that she has kept over the years.
The flashbacks show Cecilia/Sissy when she was 12 years old (played by Amelia Lule) and hanging out with her best friend at the time: Emma (played by Camille Cumpston), who is the same age. The two girls are seen doing what adolescent best friends often do: They dance together to pop songs, they talk about their hopes and dreams, and they pledge to be best friends forever. In one of the flashbacks, Emma tells Cecilia/Sissy: “Let’s make a pact: No matter what happens, we end up in the nursing home together. You’re the only person I want to poop my pants with.”
The movie opens 12 years after these home videos were made. Cecilia and Emma (played by Barlow) haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. Cecilia is now making a living as a social media influencer who gives New Age positive self-help and self-esteem advice on videos that she puts online. Using the social media name Sincerely Cecilia, she currently has about 200,000 followers on social media, where she talks a lot about meditation and creating “safe spaces.”
One day, Cecilia is in a drugstore pharmacy when she randomly sees Emma. Cecilia seems alarmed and backs away, as if she doesn’t want to Emma to see her. But Emma does see Cecilia, and Emma is very happy to see her. Emma and Cecilia give each other updates on what they’ve been doing with their lives.
Cecilia is uncomfortable and a little bit guarded during this conversation, but Emma doesn’t notice this discomfort at all. In fact, Emma seems to be very impressed with Cecilia being an “influencer” with a six-figure following on social media. Emma is also eager to have Cecilia back in her life, so she impulsively invites Cecilia to the engagement party that’s she’s having to celebrate her impending marriage to her fiancée Fran (played by Lucy Barrett). Cecilia reluctantly accepts the invitation.
At this festive party, which is held at a nightclub, Cecilia meets Fran, who is very friendly and tells Cecilia that Emma talks a lot about her. Cecilia doesn’t know anyone else at the party except for Emma, whose many friends in attendance include gossipy Jamie (played by Daniel Monks) and talkative Tracey (played by Yerin Ha). After some initial hesitation, Cecilia ends up having a fairly good time at the party, even though a drunken Emma pulled Cecilia on stage and forced her to sing karaoke with her, and Emma vomited on Cecilia. It’s one of the many comedic moments in the movie.
Emma and Cecilia’s reunion goes well enough that Emma insists that Cecilia come along to a weekend getaway trip that Emma is having with a small group of friends at a remote house in a wooded area. On this trip are Emma, Cecilia, Fran, Jamie and Tracey, who travel in one car to the vacation house. Another guest is already at the house when they arrive. And she’s not happy to see Cecilia at all. In fact, she’s absolutely furious about it.
Her name is Alexandra “Alex” Kutis (played by Emily De Margheriti), who knew Emma and Cecilia in their childhoods. (In the childhood flashback scenes, Alex is played by April Blasdall.) Through a series of events, viewers find out why there’s bad blood between Alex and Cecilia. It’s enough to say that in their childhoods, Alex was a rival to Cecilia to be Emma’s closest friend.
That rivalry opens up old emotional wounds, because Alex is now in Emma’s life as a close friend. On Alex’s social media, she describes Emma as her “best friend.” At this getaway trip, Cecilia is treated like an outsider, since she barely knows anyone in the group except for Emma and Alex. Emma’s friends are very superficial and catty, as they talk about people on social media and are preoccupied with watching a tacky reality dating show called “Paradise Lust.”
Alex delights in making Cecilia as uncomfortable as possible on this trip. For example, Alex smirks when telling Cecilia that Cecilia has to sleep on the couch because Emma didn’t tell Cecilia would be on this trip, and there are no more beds available. Alex also deliberately calls Cecilia her former childhood nickname “Sissy” numerous times, even though Cecilia politely corrects her and tells her that she no longer goes by the name Sissy, which has painful memories for Cecilia.
During a group dinner, Alex’s hostility toward Cecilia is on full display, when Alex belittles Cecilia for being a “public figure” who’s “profiting from people’s pain.” This remark comes after Tracey rudely asks Cecilia how much money she makes from being a social media influencer. Emma tries to keep the peace and says that it’s no one’s business how much money Cecilia makes. Meanwhile, Cecilia is visibly embarrassed by this barrage of disrespectful judgments about who she is from people she’s just met.
Alex also questions the ethics of anyone who gives self-help advice for a living but who’s not a trained and qualified professional in psychology. Even though Cecilia tells everyone that she’s upfront with her audience that she’s not a trained professional, Alex and eventually Jamie attempt to demean Cecilia to make her feel unworthy of her accomplishments. And to make Cecilia feel even more insecure, Alex mentions that Fran is studying to get her doctorate in psychology. Alex snipes to Cecilia, “Fran is helping real people with real problems.”
The story behind the shared history of Cecilia, Emma and Alex unfolds in layers to reveal why there’s so much resentment, jealousy and other negative feels that come out and affect what happens on this trip. The dialogue in this movie is both satirical and authentic when it comes to the psychological warfare that people can play on each other. All of the actors portray their roles with just enough parody to show viewers that “Sissy” is not a movie that’s taking its too seriously.
“Sissy” has fun playing with some horror movie stereotypes, such as “terror in the woods” and a dimwitted cop who is called to the scene when the mayhem is in full swing. This cop’s name is Constable Martindale (played by Shaun Martindale), and he embodies the typical horror movie cop who arrives alone and has to make quick decisions on how to handle some chaos. The movie is also a hilariously brutal send-up of how people use social media in the worst ways.
As a low-budget movie, “Sissy” makes very good use of cinematography (by Steve Arnold) to convey certain moods. Certain pivotal scenes are bathed in an eerie crimson red. And the color pink is a constant presence in the movie, to conjure up the childhood friendship of Cecilia/Sissy and Emma as a reminder of not only their happy memories but also what went wrong to cause their long estrangement.
Before going on the getaway trip, Cecilia looks back on a childhood video of her and Emma where they were wearing pink wigs, so Cecilia decides to dye her hair pink. It’s a symbolic of how Cecilia wishes she could go back to this happy time in her life. “Sissy” also has an original score (by Kenneth Lambl) that also skillfully goes back and forth between whimsical and ominous, to reflect these contrasting moods in the movie.
But all of these elements really wouldn’t work as well without the performances of the cast members and the direction of the film, which get the tone of a satirical horror film just right. The heart of the movie (as well as the terror) is really about the cauldron of emotions stirred up when Cecilia, Emma and Alex are all on this unsettling trip together. Dee, Barlow and De Margheriti give the movie’s best performances as this trio of women coming to terms with their past. And because Cecilia is the most complex of these characters, Dee has the standout performance.
“Sissy” is not for viewers who are easily disturbed by seeing bloody violence in movies. However, for people who can tolerate this type of content, “Sissy” offers more than the usual horror movie clichés. It’s easy for horror movies to stage bloody death scenes that are messy. But what “Sissy” accomplishes is much harder: It shows in intriguing and sometimes uncomfortably funny ways how life, relationships and people’s inner psyches can be messy too.