SXSW 2022 Review: SISSY, Smashing Subscribe And Smashing Heads In Social Media Slasher
What is more real? The person you present to the outside world, or the person you hide and keep bottled up. Philosophically, it's tricky. They are both you, and they are both real. The latter might be the easy answer because it relies solely on the individual for confirmation, the the latter can is the face you present to the world and if that is everyone else's experience of a person, is that not also real, maybe even more real? Australian horror comedy Sissy asks the question, and the answer is just as messy as you might think in this glitter-bombed cabin-in-the-outback slasher from directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes.
Cecelia (Aisha Dee) is an Instagram wellness influencer who goes by @SincerlyCecelia. She preaches balance, emotional well-being, and all kinds of other Jack Handey-isms to her two hundred thousand followers. To these followers, she is the peak of emotional perfection, her fans lap it up, leaving heartwarming messages about how she makes their day, or even saves their lives. It's like a drug to Cecelia, and the high is unmatchable.
Her day to day existence behind the scenes is less idyllic, but she seems to be getting along fine until one day she bumps into her childhood best friend Emma (director Barlow), whom she hasn't seen in decades. It turns out that Emma is getting married and wants Cecelia and her to reconnect at her upcoming hens’ weekend, which would be fabulous, except that the event is being hosted by Cecelia’s childhood nemesis Alex (Emily de Margheriti), who holds a well-founded grudge against her for a violent incident in their pasts. For the sake of the happy couple, Emma and her bride-to-be Fran (Lucy Barrett), everyone soldiers on, though Alex isn’t entirely ready to bury the hatchet, except perhaps in Cecelia – don’t call her Sissy’s – head.
The festivities begin and right from the start, Cecelia is being left behind. She is the relative newcomer – no one knows her apart from Emma and Alex – but the message from the hostess is clear; now that Sissy is back within her grasp, she’s going to make her pay. As Alex begins needling her and picking holes in her perfect life in front of Fran and another couple also joining them, Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks), Cecelia’s façade begins to crack, though it does take some doing.
When the former enemies are left alone in a beautiful stream-side scene Alex’s claws come out for real, and Cecelia attempts to defend herself, leading to the first of many bloody scenes she’ll leave in her wake. Genuinely disturbed by the aftermath of this ambush, Cecelia attempts to right the ship that is the weekend while also trying to cover up the incident to the rest of the crew. It’s just like her real life, present beauty and calm on the outside, no matter how messy the inside. The problem is that you can’t hold all that together forever, and certainly not with a small group of intimate friends and nowhere to hide.
With every move Cecelia makes to try and smooth over the cracks, she just ends up making them deeper and less fixable. One by one she encounters the rest of the weekenders, and one by one the situations go increasingly pear-shaped. Is this the old, unstable Cecelia making a comeback, or was the wellbeing a malicious façade all along? It’s kind of hard to tell, but it’s quite a bloody adventure getting to the end of this wild ride in any case.
The advent of social media magnified a problem that really always existed but was easy enough to avoid, perception versus reality. Sissy uses that dichotomy as a jumping off point for a more intimate investigation of the outward versus the inward self, and just how much we can change from our inherent natures. It’s a delicate balance, and one that someone like Cecelia has trouble finding.
Barlow and Senes script walks a similarly high tightrope in their depiction of the evolving calamity of Emma and Fran’s hens’ weekend. Cecelia’s position and mental disposition in the film are both constantly in flux, leaving the audience in a tug-of-war of loyalties and sympathies. How much of her actions are reactions? Someone may be committing this violence, but in some cases, the choice is foisted upon them with little in the way of alternatives. Once this fragile dam begins to leak, can it be repaired? We do get a bit of an answer to the initial question in the film’s conclusion, but it’s a bumpy emotional road getting there.
Past trauma being visited upon the present seems to be a running theme in the genre selections at this year’s SXSW, and while it’s always been somewhat the case with horror movies, lately it’s been writ large. In Sissy this trauma leads to a whole lot of violence, most of it well-staged, some of it gory enough to make the veteran gorehound – like myself – let out a little giggle of delight. While the gore isn’t the point of the film, it definitely deserves notice as one of many highlights.
It would be a mistake to neglect the film’s more whimsical technical flourishes that give it a special unique edge. Not unlike 2017 SXSW alum – and fellow social media focused horror – Tragedy Girls, Sissy uses the language, both visual and aural, of the ‘net to its advantage. The music, provided by Kenneth Lampl, in particular helps to set the scene for Cecelia and her inner and outer conflicts. The film is filled with a raft of fairy tale inflected flourishes that reflect Cecelia’s idealism and aspirational goals of inner harmony, even when – and perhaps especially when – the world around her doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. It’s truly fantastic and audiences will find a lot to enjoy.
Sissy is a bit messy in terms of getting the audience in line with the characters and aligning their sympathies, though I think that’s on purpose. We go on who’s-to-blame rollercoaster of emotion along with the characters, even as we see things becoming more and more deliberate as the film wears on. Sissy is one of my favorite films of the Midnighters selection this year, and it will definitely find a lot of followers to smash that subscribe button once it lands on Shudder later this year.