Reckoning with the past can be difficult. Sometimes we cringe at the recollection of embarrassing moments from high school. Worse still are the memories of when we hurt someone, intentionally or not. And if we are even remotely aware of these instances, then we often have trouble giving ourselves. This is one of the subjects explored by the imperfect, but thematically layered, new horror film Sissyfrom Australian filmmakers Kane Senes and Hannah Barlow.
On its surface, Sissyreleased on Shudder this past September, is a fast-paced, candy-coated, ultra-violent romp through the oft-explored minefield of social media. But unlike worthy predecessors such as catfish, Unfriendedand black-mirror, Sissy has a more nuanced, uncertain view of the influencer lifestyle it seems to be lampooning.
Sissy is About a Bullied Influencer
For one, the work undertaken by protagonist Cecilia (as a “mental health advocate” on a YouTube-like platform) is painted in tones both shallow and deep. In many ways, he is an act, an imagined persona which differs drastically from his regular life; on the other hand, there is something deeply real about Cecelia’s connection to the work. Inside this Instagram-colored shell is some kind of refuge from the world, and an attempt, however misguided, to heal old wounds.
Cameras, masks, and mirrors abound in this landscape, constantly reminding us of how we decide to represent ourselves to the world. Cecelia’s efforts in this regard are not the kind of caricatured performances we would see in something like black-mirror – despite the dishonesty inherent to her capitalistic work, she is a person who seeks genuine connection and views her 200,000 followers as her family. Perhaps this speaks to Cecelia’s aversion to actual, in-person social situations, because when she first encounters her estranged, former best friend in a pharmacy, her initial instinct is to run and hide. How familiar this feeling is to some of us.
This is the jumping-off point for the narrative – an opportunity for Cecelia (a spirited, inspired Aisha Dee) to reconnect with someone from her past, but not exactly wanting to and not being sure how to go about it. The friend, Emma (Hannah Barlow, also co-director), is forward, aggressively friendly, and gives Cecelia practically no option but to attend her bachelorette’s weekend in the country.
The group’s encounter with an ill-fated kangaroo is the first of many scenes which evokes Wake in Fright, another Ozploitation classic. That 1971 film follows a Tiboonda-based schoolteacher who journeys out on a holiday weekend to the Outback which promises similar debauchery and horror. While both films deal heavily with the idea of peer pressure, Sissy‘s social-media backdrop makes it feel more familiar to a contemporary audience while also somehow straying further toward science fiction.
As the world’s worst weekend commences and Cecelia begins to face more of her past demons, we are launched deeper into her perspective. Her dinner conversation with Emma, Emma’s fiancée Fran (Lucy Barrett), and Cecelia’s former school nemesis (among others) is one of the most understated scenes in the film, but it is also the key to unlocking its messages. Here, Cecelia fends off invasive questions about her career choices from people she barely knows.
They are not wrong to interrogate the influencer lifestyle, and while they are echoing many of the sentiments shared by us fellow plebeians, it is so utterly transparent that what fuels this particular line of questioning is jealousy and resentment. Cecelia has grown, moved on from her trauma, and found a new life with new meaning, and this is something that those around her cannot stand, especially her old bully Alex (a vicious Emily De Margheriti). Hurting Cecelia seems to be the only way for Alex to cope, and the whole thing turns this ostensibly fun movie into one that feels cruel and unfair.
Sissy Sees Bullying From a Different Angle
The politics of bullying are ripe for cinema, and horror in particular, because they often connote a considerable power imbalance. Those specific bullies who focus on their victims’ mythologies tend to coast, avoiding trouble for the most part, until their targets retaliate. And given that kids who are bullied are not always good at being bullies themselves, they often get themselves in trouble when they decide to fight back. There is a perfect example of this dynamic in the original Let the Right One In – this is where protagonist Oskar, having been relentlessly bullied by schoolmate Conny for the entire first act, finally snaps, whacking him in the head with a metal pole, causing blood to pour out. It’s this sort of interaction which forms the bones of Cecelia’s backstory.
Aim Sissy shoots this story from a different angle, making it less about the bully and more about the bystander. After all, it seems Alex was always a bad apple. But Emma, once Cecelia’s true best friend, abandoned Cecelia at a time when she needed her. Now the past is being drudged up, and Cecelia (or “Sissy,” as she is known to some) is being forced into some kind of aggressive, unhealthy therapy, not unlike what Willem Dafoe puts Charlotte Gainsbourg through in Antichrist – a weekend getaway that is anything but.
The Complexity of Our Technologies
All of these imperceptible shades of gey, set against the actual pinkish neons of Sissy‘s color grading, come together to form a thesis which suggests, perhaps, that maybe social media isn’t the real enemy. And though it’s hard to believe that wholeheartedly in light of some of the film’s more violent, over-the-top moments, the one thing that can be said is that Sissy does not take social media to be a clear and present evil. This differentiates the film from more cynical, finger-wagging portraits of millennial life, in that it argues for social media as a tool, to be wielded in whatever way the user pleases. In Sissy, social media is both angel and devil, guiding light and possessive demon. It has a mind of its own, but is also not all-powerful.
Moreover, social media is a setting for the story, rather than the story itself. It is the backdrop for a piece about hurt and forgiveness, the dichotomy between physical violence and psychological torment (and the ways in which they overlap), and the promises we make each other. It is about how we view the world as kids and the more crude awakenings we experience as adults, and it posits the idea that if people were just nicer, then maybe therapists would go out of business. Overall, it is a film about many things, and social media is just one of them.