Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Barlow and Senes let the situation simmer, with plenty going on to keep viewers entertained."

One of the most talked-about films at queer and horror festivals this year, and a clear favourite amongst filmmakers themselves, Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ Sissy is one of a number of works at the Fantasia International Film Festival which address the process of recovering from trauma, but none of the others does so with anything like as much gusto. A reversed perspective take on the slasher movies of the Eighties and Nineties, with a similarly vibrant colour palette, it gets to the nub of who cinematic villains so often start out as victims, and why many viewers root for them, while retaining full awareness of the horror of its title character’s actions.

‘Sissy’ is, in fact, the name she (Aisha Dee) was known by at school – both a shortened form of her real name and a taunt. These days she prefers to be known as Cecilia. She works as a self help guru on the internet and has attracted a substantial following, delivering advice which is very generic in form but which seems to succeed in making a lot of people feel better about themselves. By doing this, she manages to feel a little less awful herself. Things are going well until, one day, she bumps into her high school best friend, Emma (played by co-director Hannah Barlow). Emma is about to get married to girlfriend Fran (Lucy Barrett), and invited Cecilia to her hen weekend.

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The setting for this event may be spacious and handsomely appointed, with lots of big plate glass windows looking out across the landscape, but it is still, in essence, a remote cabin in the woods. What’s more, it turns out to belong to Alex (Emily de Margheriti), the worst of Cecilia’s high school bullies. If Alex doesn’t exactly seem thrilled to see Cecilia there either, it’s because she still bears the scars from the one time Cecilia struck back. Recognising the importance of the occasion to Emma, she tries to play nice, but Cecilia is immediately positioned as the outsider, excluded from conversation until bluntly, over dinner, she is interrogated about her profession – a situation made worse by comparisons with Fran, who is a psychologist.

The fact that Fran is one of the nicer ones doesn’t help. Cecilia is driven not only by anger at the way she’s treated, but by deeply rooted jealousy. She and Emma used to talk about growing old together. She believed in that passionate friendship, and never really got over it. Fran, who seems to be advantaged over her in every way, has stolen her girl.

Barlow and Senes let the situation simmer, with plenty going on to keep viewers entertained. It’s a while before it comes to the boil. Dee’s performance in the central role is remarkable, exuding a natural sweetness which has the audience rooting for Cecilia even after things start to get ugly. She complains, she fails to take responsibility where it’s due, she sulks, she seethes – all things which usually put viewers off, but somehow she gets away with it. This presents the two directors with a difficult balancing act as they strive to steer the film away from pure revenge fantasy and point up its satirical elements, addressing a culture which celebrates extremes and creates heroes without really knowing much about them or being willing to hold them to account.

Pulling this off requires a deep understanding of the genre, which fortunately they have. The dark wit and sense of predestination which underscore many a slasher flick are present here in spades. Gore is kept to a minimum, though it’s spectacular when we see it, so it has a lot more impact. Implication is used very effectively in place of explicit shots of violence. There’s also a haplessness about much of this, just on the edge of accident, which is rather endearing.

Committed performances and great comic timing from the supporting ensemble elevate the film further, whilst the use of glitter and sparkles and tweenage girl romantic motifs counterpoint the violence and serve as a reminder of Cecilia’s mental state. In this situation, it’s very easy to let one’s guard down, and Sissy knows exactly how to take advantage of that.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2022
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Travelling to a remote location to celebrate the hen night of her childhood best friend, a woman re-encounters her childhood bully, who is once again determined to make her suffer.

Director: Hannah Barlow, Kane Senes

Writer: Hannah Barlow, Kane Senes

Starring: Aisha Dee, Hannah Barlow, Emily De Margheriti, Daniel Monks, Yerin Ha, Lucy Barrett, Shaun Martindale, Amelia Lule, April Blasdall, Camille Cumpston

Year: 2022

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Australia

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