A successful self-help influencer finds herself unravelling when a childhood trauma comes back to haunt her in the thriller Sissy…
There’s something compulsively watchable about Sissy, the Australian thriller from co-writers and co-directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes. The film, while predictable at times, benefits from a solidly unhinged lead performance by Aisha Dee (The Bold Type, Channel Zero: No-End House) and Barlow and Senes’ refusal to make it easy for audiences to pick a side.
Dee plays Cecilia, a social media influencer whose brand “Sincerely Cecilia” is filled with empty self-care mantras such as “I am enough; I am good; I am loved.” While Cecilia lives an average existence in an unspectacular apartment filled with dirty dishes, her brand is strong; as the film begins, she’s celebrating hitting 200k followers and making a living off of her paid product endorsements.
The successful, put together facade Cecilia presents to her adoring audience crumbles soon after she runs into her childhood best friend Emma (Barlow). Sissy actually opens on old video footage of the pair as children pretending to be talk show hosts, in addition to pledging their eternal friendship to each other. It’s clear that something occurred to drive them apart since Cecilia initially tries to avoid Emma.
Emma, however, won’t take no for an answer and so Cecilia is invited first to her engagement party that night, and then a ‘hen’ party that weekend.
Cecilia is less confident in the real world than online. Dee plays the influencer as a wallflower, a woman who must be coached and prodded to engage publicly and there are multiple scenes where Cecilia retreats into the comfort and safety of her social media hive for a serotonin burst. Her social awkwardness isn’t helped by Emma’s friends, which includes fiancé Fran (Lucy Barrett), as well as Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks). The group has a pre-existing camaraderie and history that Cecilia doesn’t share, and her impostor syndrome escalates dramatically when she learns the hen party is being held at the giant country home of her childhood rival Alex (Emily De Margheriti).
Barlow and Senes’ script never hides that there’s bad blood between Alex and Cecilia. The latter blames the former for ruining her childhood friendship with Emma; the scar on Alex’s cheek, meanwhile, anticipates the uncontrollable violence lurking within “Sissy”, which is the name that Cecilia used to go by which Alex gleefully wields as a weapon in the present.
Surprising no one, the weekend doesn’t go as planned. Alex uses every opportunity to dismiss and diminish her adversary’s maturation and growth and the value of Cecilia’s online work is challenged – not just by a vindictive Alex, but also by Jamie (who suggests Cecilia may be liable if a follower dies by suicide) and Fran, whose doctoral work is in mental health.
These microaggressions endear the audience to Cecilia and Dee makes for a likeable protagonist, even when she’s ill-advisedly trotting out her and Emma’s childhood time capsule or failing to stand up for herself when Alex attacks her for “rebranding” from being a psychopath.
That all changes, however, when violence predictably enters the picture. Sissy winds up evoking the comedic set pieces of Tucker & Dale vs Evil, which each new act driving Cecilia further over the edge to the point that it becomes difficult to sympathize with Cecilia. The back half of Sissy will prove challenging for those audiences who require an uncomplicated protagonist to identify with.
Still there’s enough comedy, as well as some truly great practical FX to fuel the film through to its climax, which inevitably sees Cecilia & Emma’s relationship come to a head. Again, the outcome isn’t surprising, but Barlow, Senes and Dee’s willingness to wade into dark satire pays off, allowing Sissy to wrap up on a memorable and provocative note. 3.5/5
Sissy debuted at SXSW and has been picked up for distribution by Shudder later this year.