Eric’s Review: Sissy (SXSW 2022 World Premiere)

Fangoria! Woo!
Aisha Dee struggles to compose herself in Sissy (2022)
★★★ out of ★★★★★

Cecilia has become a successful influencer, using self-help meditation rituals of her own creation. Unfortunately, she has yet to truly conquer her own insecurities, and when she gets invited to spend some quality time with a long-lost childhood bestie, her childhood bully is there too, bringing up long-dormant fears and is forced to take a more aggressive approach to deal with her problems. At times admirable, at others frustrating, the movie is a bit of a mixed bag of bullying tropes.

Directed by Hannah Barlow and Kane Sears

Bullying is the source of many a horror classic. Unchecked bullying can lead to revenge, and when the victims get pushed past their boiling point, the tables can turn… violently. The benchmark of such stories of course would be Carrie, but you can also look to Let The Right One In, Valentine, Ginger Snaps, Christine, May, and Sleepaway Camp for prime examples.

The key ingredient to a successful bullying horror film is that you need to empathize with the victim. It is a tricky line as you are naturally inclined to side with the victim, the underdog in the battle of the powerful and the weak. Make the victim too pathetic and you risk rooting for someone who may not deserve the sympathy. Make the victim too strong and you risk any dramatic tension.

Such is the challenge for Sissy. We are introduced to two young girls by way of a home video recording of Cecilia (Amelia Lule) and her bestie Emma (April Blasdall), clowning around as little girls do, swearing eternal allegiance to each other. They are adorable, and thus the plot hook has been set. Fast forward ten years to the present day, and Cecilia (Aisha Dee) is now a successful self-help online influencer. She is instructing people in methods that she uses to de-tox their emotional beings, in her own unique handcrafted techniques.

One fateful day, she encounters Emma (Hannah Barlow) in a pharmacy, and the interaction is awkward. The two women, once bonded tightly, are now estranged. Emma informs Cecilia that she is having a bachelorette party, as she and her new girlfriend are having a gathering in a fabulous country estate, and she very much wants Cecelia to be there. Emma’s new circle of friends are all flamboyant narcissistic hipsters, and Cecelia is reluctant to join, feeling like a square peg in this new array of round holes that are Emma’s social entourage. But, she still has a deep-seated love for Emma, and she decides to go to reconnect with her old friend.

This was a mistake.

A very awkward dinner party in Sissy (2022) Yerin Ha, Daniel Monks, Emily DeMargheriti, Hannah Barlow, and Lucy Barrett.

Waiting for the party crew at the rural estate is Alex (Emily DeMargheriti), the charismatic and wicked bully who broke up the childhood relationship between Emma and Cicely. Alex still bears the scars of her last engagement with Cicely (Who she derides as “Sissy”) Alex is furious, and continually berates and mocks Cicely. The other party guests join in the unflattering dogpile in picking on the seemingly hapless young woman.

Eventually, things go too far. Cicely reveals that her latent violent streak, long suppressed by her meditation methods, percolates to the surface and she just snaps. She flips from appeasing wallflower into the queen of revenge, and to be fair, it feels very earned. The question is, does this allow the audience to root for her?

Kinda. Sort of. Not as much as I would have liked. I wanted to root for Cicely, but I found myself often frustrated with her first, inaction, and then later, her actions.

The delicate dance of the bully-themed horror film, as I described earlier requires the audience to empathize with the victim. In horror films, the retribution tends to be out of proportion to the cause, and it certainly is here. The problem with Sissy is that despite the solid acting and a rational plot, you don’t feel for any of the characters. By the time I was finished with the movie, my first thoughts were “She should have stayed home.” Also, I saw all of the victims as tragic ends, even if they were largely unlikeable characters. There was no sense of elation of the killings that occur. And for the most part, you could see the savagery coming. There was only one surprising character conclusion.

Cecelia is inherently a good person, but her turn is so jarring that it becomes difficult to continue to sympathize. It doesn’t help that none of the cast is appealing, they are prototypically narcissistic and oblivious members of the LGBT hipster culture. It’s not a good look, with vanity and obsession with superficial things playing into some stereotypes of the community that I thought we had gotten past.

Perhaps this wasn’t a movie that was tailored to my particular tastes, though it certainly falls more on the side of art-house than grindhouse. It’s a slow burn movie, and I tend to like slow burners, but perhaps because the build-up was full of socially awkward interactions, it was a bit of a chore to get through initially. It is definitely character forward film. It is free of gimmicks and cheap gags. No clumsy jump scares. And the use of foreshadowing is carefully done so that when the return to the foreshadowed elements happens I have to tip my cap to the execution.

So, it’s a skillfully produced and structured film. The lead roles, particularly Cicely are well done. I would have to say it leaves me with mixed impressions, and I’m sure there is a more specific audience (young women, perhaps?) who might find this production more compelling. Visually the movie had some really strong moments, and it shows off the rural South Australian locale very well. The gore effects and makeup work has some real high points. (Kid Cicely’s retribution on kid Alex was a show stopper.) I found Sissy to be a capable movie that failed to engage me in the way I think it wanted to. It’s a mix of the frustrating and the admirable that makes it a difficult movie to judge.

Sissy is not yet rated, but would certainly land a strong R rating for brutal violence and character on character emotional cruelty.

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