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Sissy – Four Ways

22.08.2022 | Critics Campus Reviews
Sissy – Four Ways

The live-editing workshop is an integral part of each year’s Critics Campus, and this year, four members of the cohort were assigned Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’s raucous horror Sissy. After penning their reviews, the participants sat through an intensive revision session with Liminal co-editor and Meanjin reviews editor Cher Tan. Read their final reviews below.


By Isabelle Carney

Be a living female on this planet long enough and someone will call you a ‘psycho’, perhaps because you’re doing something really crazy – like expressing emotion, having an opinion or, worse, saying ‘no’. Funny, then, that in the case of Sissy – by writer/director duo Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes – the psychotic diagnosis of its protagonist Cecilia (Aisha Dee, The Bold Type) might actually be appropriate.

Cecilia’s a social media influencer (red flag) who promotes wellness products (redder flag) and asserts her falsely Zen disposition through a spurious online persona that does not reflect her pizza-eating, sweatpants-lounging reality. This online dishonesty is a gateway drug for pathological liars. You get a taste of the harmless stuff before it escalates to intravenous levels of disaster. Next thing you know, you’re estranged from your friends, you’ve got box-dyed pink hair and your arms are smeared with blood – your own and other people’s.

Our budding psycho has concocted her own little happiness cult, complete with nonsense meditation techniques such as “making friends with hyperventilation”. Cecilia is fuelled entirely by external validation, which she once got from her childhood best friend Emma (Barlow) but now receives in heart-emoji-laden comments from her thousands of Instagram followers. “I think u just saved my life!” pants one devotee.

Using tight close-ups set to the kind of oddly whimsical music you might hear while on hold with Telstra, Barlow and Senes initially seem to sympathise with Cecilia. The loneliness of her existence is punishment enough for her shallowness. But as soon as she reconnects with Emma after a decade of separation, joining in on Emma’s hens’ weekend, Cecilia’s characterisation becomes less coherent, her motivations less apparent. And, while Sissy keeps us engaged with its horror-genre fluency and gory absurdism – self-reflexive to a fault – it remains as surface-level as its protagonist, refusing to justify its savage choices by deepening backstory or disclosing too much context. You can question all you like, but the narrative unfolds with a ‘just go with it’ attitude, like a friend dragging you through a reluctant night out.

Imagine Picnic at Hanging Rock, shorn of atmosphere and populated with wellness warriors, glitter-bombs and the odd tyre-squished head. Emma’s invitation text to Cecilia reads “BE THERE OR DIE”. But for most of this party, that is not an either–or proposition. The film’s blunt carnage elicits knee jerks, gag reflexes and an uncomfortable tightening of the pelvic floor (handy for yoga). Coupled with a third-act thunderstorm and a score spattered with violin shrills, Sissy lands not just on the nose, but inside it, through it, reaching into the skull and up to the brain, delivering a facepalm directly to the frontal lobe.

It’s desperately silly, but so is the world right now. Perhaps Cecilia is the antiheroine this vapid age deserves, reclaiming the hysterical-psycho-bitch stereotype by revelling in it much as one might soak in the juices of a celebrity-endorsed hydrating face mask. If nothing else, she’s an emblem of a very modern truism: soar too close to the ring light and you’ll get burnt … or you’ll come out of it with a book deal and a blue tick next to your Twitter handle.


By James Walsh

In recent memory, the allure surrounding the concept of ‘elevated horror’ has begun to decay. With films like Lamb (2021), Candyman (2021) and Men (2022) earning increasingly tepid reactions, audiences are growing weary of a subset of horror filmmaking that trades visceral shocks for a lumbering intellectual bent. A craving has developed for the old-school cathartic violence of the slasher genre – one that Sissy seeks to satiate.

Set in suburban Canberra, Sissy revolves around Instagram self-help influencer Cecilia (Aisha Dee, The Bold Type), whose fragile self-esteem is soothed by the constant attention of a follower count in the hundreds of thousands. A chance meeting with her estranged childhood best friend Emma (Hannah Barlow, also co-writing and co-directing alongside Kane Senes) finds Cecilia invited to a countryside retreat with Emma’s superficial set of friends. When the violent trauma that Cecilia’s influencer lifestyle seeks to hide is dredged up, the delicate bonds that keep Cecilia’s sanity in place start to snap, turning an idyllic weekend getaway into a bloodbath.

It’s a loaded set-up, one that feels particularly geared to explore current conversations around identity, triggers and trauma. But these ideas are stripped of their complexity, expounded on in simplified sniping at the dinner table or in broad conversations that feel like Instagram infographics set to film. By the film’s second half, these conversations are dropped entirely in favour of wall-to-wall carnage.

There is merit to this approach. Sissy is decidedly not an elevated horror about the complexities of intersectional identity and trauma. It is a grisly, goofy B-movie about a bunch of friends continuing the extensive tradition of having a really terrible time in Canberra. On that level, the film is a blast, with camp and gore gushing across the screen in equal measure. The cast is admirably game, with Dee in particular putting in the hard yards to keep her character’s downward spiral engaging, her eyes flooding with a tender insecurity that rubs against the bubbling undercurrent of narcissism.

Cinematographer Steve Arnold’s lensing recalls the bold camerawork of classic Ozploitation, with copious split diopter shots and inverted frames revelling in the kind of goofy fun that has been lost in the po-faced arthouse stylings of movies like Hereditary (2018). Unfortunately, that visual wit does not often extend to the verbal, though there are some genuinely funny riffs on reality television via a thinly disguised Love Island parody that several characters are obsessed with.

The vein of cynicism running through the sometimes-cruel humour is one shared with Sissy’s slasher forebears, where sympathies lay less with the winsome final girls than with the delightfully violent ways that masked maniacs like Halloween’s Michael Myers would try and dispose of them. But audiences eventually grew tired of endless murder without compunction, just as they now grow weary of the meddlesome moralising that gets in the way of bloody fun. Sissy may not find the golden ratio between the two, but at least it gives it a few good stabs.


By Digby Houghton

In Sissy, Australian writer/directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes create a piece of horror-comedy that ties millennial malaise to a depravity and hollowness that typifies contemporary popular culture. However, the film doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Cecilia (Aisha Dee, The Bold Type), known since childhood as “Sissy”, runs into her childhood best friend Emma (Barlow) in a stylised supermarket in suburbia. This subsequently leads to Sissy crashing Emma’s hens’ party in the bush, an altercation that rekindles childhood trauma both for Sissy and her one-time bully Alex (Emily De Margheriti). The film cleverly incorporates an amount of footage that Sissy had filmed during her childhood. Through this championing of early-2000s handycam aesthetics, we uncover Emma and Sissy’s close relationship throughout the narrative. 

Cecilia’s nickname signifies both her femininity, shown by the bright pink tops she wears, and the degrading way in which she is remembered by Emma and their other high school friends. Sissy is introduced as an influencer selling beauty products on her Instagram channel, but we later realise she doesn’t have a psychology degree or qualifications to back up her advice and ‘authoritative’ opinions. This lack of clout shapes the majority of Barlow and Senes’s criticism of the superficiality of social media.

Influencers are rapidly becoming a part of the gig economy, and Sissy’s self-marketing as a hippie-esque champion for wellness products allows a degree of criticism around capitalism. But Barlow and Senes don’t go far enough – the irony of Sissy and her occupation doesn’t leave the audience caring about her fate.

Sissy has been dubbed a slasher film, and people die gruesomely in it, but the production design tells a different story. This is most prominent in the pastel-hued colour and mood of the design, which makes it similar to the Australian coming-of-age drama Babyteeth. However, the light tinge and soft colour palettes that are becoming unmistakably tied to this subgenre have their limitations. This artistic decision is certainly intentional and provides irony, but it doesn’t work in the context of this film. That said, at least it fits within the wider genre of the horror-comedy.

Ozploitation’s rich history of B-cinema and pulp horror led to an enormous deal of innovation in practical effects and violence, which Sissy pays tribute to. The sight of limbs and bodies exploding might grab you even if the characters don’t.

Too often, however, the images here do little more than unimaginatively illustrate the screenplay, which makes it seem unevolved and insufficiently subtle or nuanced. For example, the film centres around a superficial recreation of the reality TV show Love Island. This fictional world within the film creates a haunted self-awareness. How more explicitly allegorical does the text need to be?

Sissy’s horrifying gore and practical effects leave the audience entertained but, in all, it feels unresolved and typical of an independently produced Australian film. The film struggles to take itself seriously and doesn’t hit the mark.


By Lily Rodgers

Birds chirp, the Canberra sun shines and an influencer gardens while gushing to her livestream audience about the ‘magic’ of nature. Little do they know, it is a human body that she has just buried beneath the dirt. Australian writer/directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’s film Sissy delights in such ironic juxtaposition, using a generation obsessed with social media, self-help and hate-watching the reality TV show Love Island as fodder for a gory romp.

Landing in the wheelhouse of female revenge stories like Carrie (1976), Barlow and Senes’s comedy-horror follows social-media influencer Cecilia (Aisha Dee, The Bold Type), nicknamed “Sissy”, as she confronts the wounds of childhood bullying and those responsible. After a chance encounter with Emma (Barlow), the primary school friend from whom she was once inseparable, Cecilia takes up the invitation to join a hens’ weekend with Emma and her new inner circle. It just so happens the celebrations are held at a remote cabin in the woods belonging to Alex (Emily De Margheriti), the very bully from Cecilia’s youth.

A sense of suffocation pervades the first half of the film, as Cecilia’s many shifting glances and awkward pauses in conversation make her a figure whose struggles with anxiety are treated with care. Despite the film’s shimmering visuals – intoxicating flashes of gold eye glitter and pink neon lights, a dark twist on aesthetic trends from Instagram and TikTok – something is not right. We watch as Cecilia’s carefully curated online life of crystal ball diffusers and ‘Elon mask’ beauty products unravels.

In an early sequence, extreme close-ups display Cecilia’s pupils dilating as she reads the adoring comments of her followers. It is clear this is a sort of addiction. At numerous points in the film - after a traumatic flashback or a particularly tense interaction with Alex - Cecilia rushes to the bathroom and breathlessly scrolls through these comments, seeking relief. As this disjunction between reality and her virtual world extends, the film erupts into a frenzied, bloody slasher.

The violence in Sissy is wildly fun. Senes and Barlow push gory visuals to the point that they become cartoonish. In a particularly memorable scene, Cecilia drives over one of her new ‘friends’. Close-ups show a wheel crushing the victim’s face, her eyes squeezing out of their sockets, Play-Doh-style.

Yet, once this killing spree begins, the film abandons numerous conversations raised in its first half – for example, mental health. Online, Cecilia is a self-described “mental health advocate” and, in a strained dinner scene, spars with Alex over the ethics of imparting unlicensed health advice to her followers. This earnest, knotty discussion is tossed aside, though, in the wake of the film’s frantic massacre, after which Sissy’s actions are reduced to those of a deranged, laughing murderer – a clichéd genre trope. 

Above all, Sissy is a warning. The film’s superficial beauty and grisly revelations suggest what emotional wounds and gruesome behaviour may be lurking beneath even the most immaculately curated Instagram grid. Follow with care.

Sissy screened as part of the MIFF 70 program.
MIFF Critics Campus is presented by VicScreen and supported by the University of Melbourne.

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