BY JENN ADAMS
Starring Aisha Dee, Yerin Ha and Lucy Barrett
Written and directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes
Many recent studies have explored the link between social media and mental health, and it’s now widely accepted that the practice of constantly comparing yourself to images of others can be detrimental to your self-esteem. Most of these studies examine the harmful effects of Instagram culture, but SISSY, the Australian horror comedy from writing and directing team Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes looks at the dangerous effects of social media on everyone else. As a self-care influencer, Cecilia (Aisha Dee) has built her brand on positivity and compassion. Her millions of followers see her as a beacon of light in a cruel world, but those who grew up with Cecilia, or “Sissy,” see something very different. Barlow and Senes play with the juxtaposition between Cecilia’s carefully cultivated online persona and reality in this candy-colored horror comedy, showing how the constant need for external validation can have devastating results in our personal lives. Yet, SISSY is so much more than a cautionary tale. With a brightly lit backdrop and a posh party atmosphere, SISSY is a violent but hilarious romp that never takes itself too seriously.
Cecilia is an influencer focused on self-love and personal advocacy. After running into her childhood friend, Emma (Hannah Barlow), Cecilia finds herself falling back into the role of “Sissy,” a childhood persona she’s worked hard to leave behind. Days away from her wedding, Emma convinces Cecilia to come along for her hens’ weekend at a remote vacation home. Unfortunately, the trip is hosted by Emma’s current best friend, Alex (Emily De Margheriti), a childhood classmate carrying a grudge against Cecilia stemming from a violent incident in their youth. As Cecilia struggles to make peace with her past and live out the ideals she proclaims in her videos, her grasp on reality begins to slip. A confrontation between Alex and Cecilia ignites a cascading avalanche of tragedy and violence that threatens to reveal the real Cecilia to herself and the world.
Cecelia is the hero of her own story, and when viewed through her mental lens, everyone around her is a villain, but as with most social media profiles, there’s a different story just out of frame. The more we learn about the original conflict, the more we question our assumptions of Cecilia’s innocence. The film plays with mean girl archetypes, exposing the similarities in the psychoses of both bullies and victims. Dee is wonderful in the role, deftly shifting between vulnerability and violence. We relate to Cecilia’s assertion that she really is a good person, and we want to root for her, even when what she’s doing is abhorrent. We feel her desperation grow each time she’s pushed further out of her comfort zone, and it’s not until the final act that we feel like we truly have a read on her motivations.
De Margheriti plays a perfect mean girl/best friend, and the heart of the film is her interaction with Cecilia. The two characters are constantly fighting for the audience’s allegiance. Barlow completes the triangle as Emma, a perfect foil and altruistic saint who consistently makes things worse by attempting to make peace. SISSY functions as a slasher, but rather than merely having a stable of stock characters that are picked off one by one, Barlow and Senes develop the personalities of the entire cast, lending emotional weight to each grisly death. However, these supporting players are not innocent victims, and there’s a cruel sort of catharsis each time one of them meets a violent end.
Barlow and Senes eviscerate influencer culture as Cecilia turns everything in her life into a parable for empowerment. She projects an image of serenity and self-love that her followers devour, while just out of the frame is a grisly act of violence she can twist to fit a “survivor” narrative. Every time the situation spins out of control, Cecilia turns to her followers and the number of likes on her videos for validation. It’s a relatable exercise in delusion, as she goes to astonishing lengths to make herself the hero in a never-ending battle against toxicity. “Sissy” challenges these narratives and invites us to consider both sides of the story. The more we learn about Cecilia, the less we’re able to believe the highly crafted image she’s constructed for herself. And if Cecilia isn’t the victim/survivor she claims to be, maybe we aren’t either.
Despite the film’s dour premise and complex social commentary, the execution is a gleefully gory romp. Early in the film, Fran (Lucy Barrett) brushes glittery stars across Cecilia’s eyelids, signaling an entry into Emma’s glamorous world. The rest of the action follows suit with expensive modern interiors or gorgeous natural landscapes perfectly encapsulating Instagram aesthetics. The film is a wash of stylish pinks and lush neutrals from the bright new hue of Cecilia’s hair to the festive decorations of the weekend party. Filmed in Canberra, Australia, the rural setting is both gorgeous and menacing, perfectly capturing the duality of surface-level serenity hiding a deadly reality. Even the special effects are stylishly over the top. After a few shocking deaths, the film explodes into a neon gorefest, drawing out the tension before following through with one visceral kill after another.
SISSY is a hilarious and viscous horror comedy that dares us to explore how we view ourselves and how we treat each other. With constantly shifting villains, it’s also a meditation on cultivated narratives and the drawbacks of single-minded empowerment. But the true genius of the story is the reliability of its characters. We’ve all been Cecilia at one point in our lives, the outsider misunderstood by the popular crowd. We’ve all been Alex, a loyal friend determined to protect the people she loves. And we’ve all been Emma, averse to conflict and desperately hoping everyone will just get along. As a brutal takedown of social media deception, SISSY dares us to question which of these narratives are actually true and whether we truly are the heroes of our own story.