Best friends forever?

Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes on friendship, trauma and Sissy

by Jennie Kermode

Sissy
Sissy

Few genre film this year have made quite as much impact as Sissy, an Australian horror comedy with important subtext about bullying, social media, and how we process our negative experiences. It stars Aisha Dee as the title character (who now prefers to be called Cecilia), a young woman who has built up a following as an internet self-help guru, whose carefully constructed world falls apart when she once again comes face to face with the girls who made her miserable at school. Stylistically informed by the slasher movies of the Eighties and Nineties, it takes a slightly different approach as a series of violent altercations are seen from the perspective of this troubled lead.

“I think we wanted to expand the horror genre and the slasher tropes to subvert them some in some way,” says co-director Hannah Barlow, who also stars in the film as Cecilia’s sometime best friend, when we meet at the Fantasia international Film Festival.

Her fellow director, Kane Senes, nods. “Yeah, but I think where it started from was just looking at how crazy our world’s getting, and the anxieties that we have that our generation and the generation after us is dealing with. And you know, what role social media plays in all of that, and this increasing need to find that kind of ‘safe space’ in such a crazy world. And there’s this idea of presenting a façade to the world or a kind of constructed a identity that we can hide behind when everything else out there is so uncertain and scary. In many ways, we are all Sissy in that sense, and we wanted to represent that as opposed to judging the character or keeping them at arm's length, like a traditional villain. And so that's where that idea of a kind of slasher movie where we are in the perspective of the slasher, I suppose, came from. And, you know, can we relate to her, and can she be the audience's perspective, their point of view into this world.”

Hannah picks up the thread. “Just looking at the sort of slasher films which came from the Seventies and the Eighties, that was a time when the world was still responding to the Cold War. It was all about the villain being the other in our generation. In the millennial and Gen Z generations, the villain is truly internal. We’re exposing ourselves online, to our detriment, and anxiety is increasing, the suicide rate is increasing. And it all comes from self perception and self worth....”

“The rise of understanding of mental health...” puts in Kane.

“...so in order to kind of make a commentary on how social media is affecting my generation, we have to make the villain the protagonist,” Hannah concludes.

There’s a lot of discussion, within the film, of different kinds of therapy and their potential to help or, when presented by someone with no training, do harm. I suggest that Cecilia may also have found her own kind of therapy, in the form of revenge.

“Who puts these these people these influencers in a position of influence or power?” asks Kane, after thinking about it for a bit. “You know, we all do, we all do, we vote with out likes. And so, in that sense, we are all kind of contributing to this ecosystem. And a lot of kids, you know – I have five young nieces who are all active on social media and following this person and that, and becoming very body conscious, image conscious, and following all kinds of swimsuit models, and the Kardashians and, you know, there was also this case of Belle Gibson in Australia, who was quite a big influencer.”

“She was a con artist who faked cancer,” explains Hannah, “and she got a wellness app out of it, and a book deal, and she proliferated this lifestyle of clean eating and wellness and people were following her and eventually it was proven that she didn't have cancer to begin with. She got completely skewered by the Australian media. And you know, in watching that sort of media fire, we started asking the question, ‘Well, how did she get put there?’ and it's all of us who are engaging in this toxic behaviour and that's allowing con artists to emerge in the cracks and take advantage of our weak spot, which is our perfectionism.”

“ I do think the violence kind of connects back, probably,” muses Kane. “I mean, it's metaphoric in that sense, right? It's like, we are so violent to ourselves, we are violent to the people in our lives.”

“Comparison anxiety,” says Hannah, and he nods.

“Yes, comparison, anxiety is a big one. We’re violent to the people in our lives, maybe not physically, necessarily, sometimes, just emotionally, psychologically, because we don't treat our own trauma and wounding. When you just kind of suppress that, and you push that deep down, you end up taking it out on the people in your orbit in your life, even without wanting to. And so I think that's what the kind of violence represents, right?. You can, I think, watch the movie and there can be a kind of wish fulfillment in there and a kind of fantasy of like, ‘Oh, if only I could kind of take revenge against my tormentors.’ You know, that's the great fantasy that makes revenge films so satisfying, gratifying to watch. And so I think that definitely is in there. But I think what we tried to do is not let people off the hook necessarily with that.

“You're kind of seeing what this is doing to her, and it's not a good thing. You do wonder what detriment there is and how much further down the rabbit hole she has fallen. How much more she has tainted herself with adding these layers of violence onto what was already a traumatised personality. And hopefully, that's not the solution. Hopefully, the solution is actually, truly just the mindfulness that she's preaching but obviously doesn't know how to apply it to herself.”

Cecilia’s awkward, traumatised behaviour could easily make her a difficult character for viewers to connect with even before things get violent, I suggest, so how did they work around that potential pitfall and find an actor who could make the character work?

“Sissy certainly comes from a very personal place,” says Hannah. “I think that we all have that internal voice, that self victimising voice of ‘This isn't fair. I'm the victim, people don't treat me the way I deserve. Poor me.’ We all have that within us. So I do think that people relate. Especially with the inner child that exists within that needs protections.”

“I guess with the casting, Aisha Dee was someone who when we went and spoke to her, I think the first thing she said was ‘I am Sissy,’” says Kane. “’I'm Sissy and I’d ride or die for her. I don't think we should judge her. I don't think she's the villain in this case at all.’”

Hannah nods. “And she was the first actor that we'd spoken to that had said that, and I was like ‘Yeah, I'm Sissy too.’ I was bullied as a kid and pretty badly. I think I she was bullied worse than I was. And I think it's a very female experience. Like, I think as young women, we all go through some sort of psychological torment that's pretty vicious and we're not quick to deal with and even amongst friends and even as adults, we still go through stuff like that, but if you don't do the work and clear your wounding from your childhood, it can have this pretty long lasting, devastating consequences to your own mental health but also socially. So Aisha and Kane, we spoke about that all that stuff in depth and Aisha has just been a fierce defender of Cecilia, even to us...”

“Even to us in the sense that we might have had a line or two in the script that referred to having a creepy smile or you know, something where you're trying to convey visually what you're seeing in your mind on the page,” says Kane, “and she would point out to us ‘You're judging her,’ you know? The way she played the role I think just lent so much likability to the character that I think is crucial to pulling off what you're saying, that idea that it's kind of up to you and everyone else to decide, but like...”

“To make her accessible, this clearly villainous, toxic person,” says Hannah.

“Yeah, who can do such horrendous things to people but that you can still root for her and defend her. I think that is a testament to Aisha as an actor and to how likeable she makes the character.” He pauses for a moment. “Not necessarily likeable just in a twee way, but likeable in the sense that you feel her pain and you have empathy for her and what she's gone through. And I think the childhood bullying aspect of that, and also just the sweetness of her demeanour as an adult as well, I think this is what allows that to happen, to work.”

Going back to what Hannah said about female experiences, I tell her that I'm interested in the way that the film explores the kind of passionate friendships that girls have sometimes when they're around 13, and the way that that translates for Cecilia, maybe, into romantic feelings. There’s a fuzzy line there and she's very possessive of her best friend.

Hannah tells me about how she was approached at the Fantasia screening by a woman who told her that she felt the film reflected a very specific female experience, that the first heartbreak women go through is with their best friends. It’s clearly a remark which struck a chord with her. “I had some really intense friendships as a kid,” she tells me. “The love is so palpable, and the worship of the of the other is so palpable, it does kind of approach the line of ‘Is this more than friendship? Is this sexual? Why does this person feel like they're a part of my identity?’ It's so close. And then we go through the heartbreak of growing up and leaning into male partnerships.”

“Or female partnerships, depending,” says Kane.

“Yes. Romantic partnerships. But the first loves of our lives are our female friends. The enmeshment of female friendships is beautiful, intoxicating, and then also toxic. Devastating.”

We get a sneak peek into what Cecilia’s treasured friendship used to mean through a time capsule box which the girls made when they were 13.

“Yeah,” says Hannah. “My best friend, Molly, who the film in my mind is kind of devoted to it, she said she just saw the movie and she found our time capsule and sent me a video of it, and there's a key in there and we don't know what the key opens. She's like, ‘Your heart, maybe.’” She laughs. “When we were about Cecilia’s age, or just before then, Crossroads with Britney Spears and Zoe Saldana came out, and they bury a time capsule at the beginning of the film and then open it at the end. In the early 2000s there all these female friendship movies that were heartbreaking, and they were all incredibly influential. For Sissy the sort of glittery, heightened, magical realist, hopeful elements, it all comes from those references.”

“And then mashing up the glitter with the gore, right?” suggests Kane. “And taking that and then kind of throwing it in a Nineties slasher type of genre story.”

“Like murdering the hope of friendship,” says Hannah.

There’s almost a commentary on this contained within the reality TV show which the film’s characters obsessively watch, Paradise Lust. I ask them where that came from.

“I think I was just watching a lot of Bachelor Nation and Love Island, and thinking about how those shows are wildly popular,” says Hannah. “And why do I actually enjoy them as a fan? And it's that sort of hate watching that we all do. But we just want to watch these beautiful young dumb people who are exposing themselves and the worst aspects of their personalities and trusting toxic producers, or in the name of fame, and I think the the characters in our movie, instead of paying attention to the actual events around them, or the nuances of relationships and having awareness, they're engaging in this toxic programming.”

“And it's mindless, right?” says Kane. “There's no real kind of confronting of anything bigger than yourself, like, maybe you would get from a great movie or something like that. So they probably see characters that are sweeping all of that under the rug. And that's why they don't have the necessary empathy for for Sissy.”

“And that's the fallout for our generation and Gen Z,” says Hannah. “We're worshipping these really superficial, homogenised things that are actually impacting us in some way, I think that we don't have that much awareness around it, and we don't know the long term effects yet.”

“At the end of the day, I think we kind of wanted to make a kind of comedy first and a horror second,” says Kane, “but there's a fine line between them, there always has been a fine line. So if you can find a way to make people laugh – and obviously, Paradise Lust is a big part of that, because we all know what that is and we all are ready to, to laugh at that. And the same thing with social media, we all use it, but we all kind of roll our eyes and go ‘Yeah, I know I shouldn't be using it. I know I shouldn’t watch this trash on TV.’ But we do, whether we're addicted or whether it's the kind of band-aid that we need for such an increasingly toxic world.”

“I don't watch the news every day,” says Hannah. “But as soon as this new episode of Real Housewives...”

“Yeah. And at the end of the day we’re no different, that's why we made a movie about this kind of stuff. We’re trying to understand why we do this kind of stuff,” says Kane. “And also just forgive ourselves and go, like, ‘I mean, it's not hurting anyone.’ Until it does.”

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