Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’s Sissy is a horror film that, like its protagonist, can’t quite establish a solid identity. It’s part satire and part panicky violence, fluctuating between glittery “Elon Mask” facials and an unforgettably graphic look at someone’s head bursting like a water balloon full of blood. It does all of this well at least some of the time and none of it well all of the time. Neither extreme, however, houses the film’s raw, beating heart. That’s reserved for the excruciating, cringe-fueled social dynamics, which are rotten through-and-through with insecurity, hatred, fear, envy, anxiety, and unresolved issues. This is a horror film for people who would probably rather die a gruesome death than have to hear a whole group of people mocking and criticizing them behind their back.
Cecilia (Aisha Dee) is an up-and-coming influencer who uses her channel to promote the kind of soft-focus self-care and self-affirmation that she desperately needs herself. She’s not always living up to her mantra–I am loved, I am special, I am enough–and her apartment is more of a rat’s nest than a retreat, but she really isn’t selling anything she doesn’t believe in. As the movie goes on, we’ll realize just how a narrow a ledge Cecilia is clinging to–and then we’ll watch people start stepping on her fingers.
The golden time in Cecilia’s life, at least in her memories, was when she was still inseparable childhood best friends with Emma (Hannah Barlow). But although they once promised to stick together all the way to the nursing home, when they bump into each other in a drugstore at the start of the film, it’s been ten or fifteen years since they’ve seen each other. Running into Emma again tears Cecilia up inside, and she even tries to keep the meeting from happening–but once it has, and once the soon-to-be-married Emma’s invited her out for celebratory drunken karaoke, a desperate hope starts filtering in alongside the dread. In a very real–and possibly, the film hints, in a passionate and romantic–way, she’s just been reunited with the great love of her life. (Emma is marrying a woman; Cecilia’s sexuality is less clear.) Maybe she’ll be able to step back into the sunny confidence she showed in their childhood videos. When the two of them are at the karaoke bar and Cecilia slowly relaxes into performing their old duet, it’s genuinely affecting … at least until Emma drunkenly vomits down the front of Cecilia’s shirt.
In retrospect, that’s a sign that Cecilia should, perhaps, quit while she’s ahead. But Emma invites her to her hen weekend out in the country, and Cecilia says yes, and the die is cast.
Because while the old videos we see of Emma and “Sissy” seem adorable and real, with the two of them equally huggy and grandiose and silly and devoted, we can’t separate them from the adult Cecilia’s polished, performative videos. Reality gets filtered, and we all edit ourselves, especially with a camera on us.
It’s not until they’re on the way to the hen party-out in the middle of nowhere, with only one car at the whole group’s disposal–that Cecilia learns that their hostess for the weekend is Emily De Margheriti’s wealthy, sharp-tongued Alex. As a kid, Alex had everything Sissy didn’t–and she used it, perhaps not unfairly, to win Emma over to her side, until Emma and Alex were wearing paired “best friend” necklaces and Sissy can’t even get invited to Emma’s birthday party. Alex’s jeering “Sissy the sissy” insult still echoes in Cecilia’s ears–it’s why she dropped the nickname completely. And there’s a cherry on top of all this fear and jealousy: one day Alex mocked Sissy so relentlessly that Sissy opened up her face with a trowel, splitting her cheek from lip to jaw.
Cecilia still fears Alex. Alex still hates Cecilia–or Sissy, as she still insists on calling her. And it’s Alex’s house, and these are Alex’s friends, with Cecilia a virtual stranger to everyone but Emma–who isn’t exactly bending over backwards to make sure she’s included and who tells Alex (as Cecilia overhears) that she didn’t really think Cecilia would come and that she only invited her because she was drunk.
Cecilia’s minor internet fame gets her a certain amount of interest and respect at the party only until it can be used against her, with Emma’s friends “just asking questions” about whether or not she’s really qualified to give out this kind of mental health advice. Cecilia says she makes it very clear in her videos that she’s not an expert, but no, they press on. What would happen if she missed a DM from someone and that person killed themselves? She could be responsible for their death! With each question, Cecilia’s fragile sense of self-worth unravels even more.
She’s soaking up psychological damage like a sponge, and we already know that when she overloads, the results are violent–she can’t handle any other kind of direct confrontation. She’s not a sadist–though the sense of power all this horror brings has a definite effect on her–she just wants to make it stop. In her videos, she lays a rope around herself in a circle to represent emotional boundaries–the walls that you have to protect yourself, that you should carry with you wherever she goes. Cecilia doesn’t really carry the walls, though, despite her best efforts. All she carries is the rope, which means that in the middle of her murder spree, she has to sit down and frantically meditate to try to find some sense of inner calm.
The structure becomes more formulaic as the movie goes on–though the kills are remarkably good for something that’s not really a slasher movie–and the ending satirical note, while amusing, doesn’t provide the needed punctuation to all the deeper, messier feelings the movie’s dealt with. Despite that, Aisha Dee is terrific, the combination of terror and cringe is well worked-out, and some of the movie’s loose ends even work in its favor by encouraging different interpretations. Again, like the insecure, murderous Cecilia, it’s imperfect but certainly worth supporting.
Sissy is streaming on Shudder.