[SXSW 2022 Review] 'Sissy' is a Stylistic Slasher and Cutthroat Commentary on Toxic Influencer Culture
Social media is fake…
…That’s not an eye-opening statement. Most of us are well aware. But with social media consuming so much of our lives and addicting our brains to likes and hashtags, that fakeness has begun to seep more and more into our reality. Enter writer/directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ Sissy, which just premiered at SXSW, a cutthroat commentary on the toxic influencer culture that pervades so much of daily life.
Sissy follows Cecilia (Aisha Dee)—do not call her Sissy—an influencer, or, as she puts it, “mental health advocate”. Whatever you say, Cecilia. After a run-in with her childhood BFF, Emma (Barlow), Cecilia is invited to her bachelorette weekend (along with Emma’s fiancé, Fran, played by Lucy Barrett) at an isolated cabin in the woods. But when she gets there, she discovers the cabin is owned by her childhood bully, Alex (Emily De Margheriti). Tensions high and jealousy running rampant, it isn’t long before sarcastic remarks and side-eyed glances turn into an explosion of bloody outrage.
I hope you don’t mind being uncomfortable, because Sissy is guaranteed to make you squirm in your seat.
The film opens on a too close for comfort close-up—get used to those—of Cecilia recording her latest self-help video. “I am loved. I am special. I am enough. I am doing my best,” she tells her 200k followers. Hey, she’s more popular than The Riddler! Those words are Cecilia’s motto. They’re meant to be calming. All smiles and warmth and surrounded by pretty colors, it’s easy to fall under Cecilia’s spell and believe her advice. Except the moment Cecilia is off camera, we find that the rest of her home is steeped in darkness. She’s lonely. Depressed. And not at all the confident, put together person she projects herself as in real life.
Cecilia is a fraud.
Aisha Dee, however, is not. This woman can act. Dee is hypnotic as a character that is simultaneously heartbreaking and goddamn terrifying. In one moment, you’ll want nothing more than to reach out and hug Cecilia, and in the next, you’ll wish you were a thousand miles away from her. Except even if you wanted to run away, you couldn’t, because Dee is so devastating in the role that you can’t help but be a fly stuck in her ointment, entranced as she devours you with an unforgettable performance.
Aside from Dee’s wonderfully unhinged portrayal, the filmmakers subject viewers to scene after scene of cringey discomfort. We’re placed into the shoes of Cecilia, and that’s an uncomfortable place to be. I was also bullied as a kid, and Sissy is filled with moments that recall those traumatic experiences. No one listens to Cecilia when she speaks. She constantly hears the others whispering about her—imagined or not, her pain is still very real—and no matter what she does, she feels unwanted. Awkward hugs. Awkward smiles. Awkward everything abounds. Loads of shocking gore/kills that will have you screeching, vicious brutality, and hallucinations involving one of the creepiest paintings I’ve had the displeasure of laying my eyes on are just the bloody cherry on top of this decadent cake of awkward tension.
Making it all more digestible for viewers with less steely stomachs is a quirky sense of humor that is to die for. Like the best horror films do, Sissy gives the audience plenty of room to laugh, a necessary trick when dealing with scene after scene of uneasy horror. A film told from Cecilia’s warped point of view, there’s an irony to almost everything happening on screen. The filmmakers consistently choose music that contradicts the moment, going for soft and sweet in times of abject terror and vice versa. Clever though subtle pokes at the disingenuousness of influencers can be found everywhere, like Cecilia suggesting her depressed followers include a "therapy rope" in all of their meditations (big yikes) or recording peaceful bits of advice while something awful occurs just outside of her camera’s view. And bless the filmmakers for jokes like a tampon brand called “Bloody Brilliant”.
This whole script is bloody brilliant.
What really sets the film apart from your average slasher though is a dreamy visual style which plays into Cecilia’s childlike perception. Steve Arnold’s cinematography is stunning, soaking the film in neon and glitter and everything nice. Transitions from glittery nail polish into a starlit sky and the most beautiful picnic setups you’ve ever seen add a magical quality to Sissy that is downright enchanting. There is a constant blending of worlds throughout the film, mixing Cecilia’s fabricated social media existence full of emojis and filters with her all too painful reality until it’s impossible to tell the difference. For as ruthless and bloody as the movie is, Sissy is gorgeous. And wonderfully queer! Between a glitter mask worn while murdering, rainbow sashes used to tie someone down and a theme of pink, neon triangles, Sissy is a queer slasher that has a lot going on underneath the surface.
From the seductive cinematography to cheer worthy kills and shocking surprises, Sissy is the kind of movie that makes your jaw hit the floor, again, and again, and again.
My one and only complaint with Sissy is a personal one, in that I’m tired of seeing negative portrayals of bullied kids in horror, as if we’re all doomed to a life of mental illness and psychotic tendencies, and that’s just not the case. But aside from that, Sissy is a stylistic slasher for the social media era that pours on all of the glittery, bloody awkwardness that you can handle and leaves you begging for more.
“Sometimes people want to feel seen”. See Sissy. It’s #Unforgettable.
By Matt Konopka