FrightFest 2022 Highlights

Sissy

Another film that I have loved since SXSW, Sissy won over the FrightFest family with its wicked balance of humour and horror. It’s a massive shame that it wasn’t played on the Main Screen. However, an imminent Shudder release should rectify that. Here’s my review from SXSW.

In the world of cinema, the influencer has surpassed the writer to become a protagonist’s occupation of choice. In fact, of SXSW’s eight Midnight movies, at least two of them place an influencer into the line of fire. Society’s shift into the digital domain has made celebrities out of those that spend their lives posting content for others to consume and so filmmakers have become fascinated with these types of people. Whilst many on-screen influencers tend to be loud, brass, attention-seeking egomaniacs, the one presented in Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ Sissy is a more subdued and timid creature.

The success of Sissy lies in the performance of Aisha Dee and what she gives is an enchanting, amusing, and hauntingly lonely turn as Cecilia who runs a successful Instagram page. She uses her channel to promote positive thinking and share coping strategies for dealing with anxiety, and it is during these videos Dee perfectly captures the look and tone of self-help guru influencers. Her calm exterior is hiding a wealth of secrets. The biggest is that Cecilia was a victim of childhood bullying and is still wrecked by her own scars. Instead of acknowledging them, Cecilia does her best to repress and ignore them. Her delicate shell of protection begins to crack however, after reconnecting with her former best friend Emma (Hannah Barlow). 

Even before Cecilia and Emma reunite, it’s clear that Cecilia isn’t coping with life as well as her page insists. Whilst her social media posts may be all pink glittery stars and crisp, outside of her little bubble of her set, Cecilia’s house is a state. It’s in dire need of a tidy; the sink is overflowing with dirty dishes and her diet appears to consist of nothing more than takeaways. Her assertive video personality is quickly shown to be deceitful. The reality is that Cecilia is rather meak and struggles to make herself heard. Through Cecilia, co-writers and directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes explore the truth between screen-life and real-life, the stark contrast between Cecilia’s immaculately constructed image and her more unruly reality, showcasing how easy it is to lie (even to oneself) online. The pair also use their lead to show the hold that social media has over a large portion of modern society. With so few ‘real’ elements of a life to hold onto, Cecilia clings to the feedback she receives online. The validation and support she reads gives her a major endorphin hit and helps to reinforce her ostrich level life mission of ignoring the bad things in life. 

Cecilia’s precariously balanced way of life is immediately thrown into turmoil after seeing Emma again. The painstakingly fabricated mask that Cecilia wears slips slightly upon their meeting, clueing the viewer into aspects of their history. After politely accepting Emma’s invitation to attend her Hen weekend, the mask comes dangerously close to falling off completely. Upon arrival she learns that her former tormentor Alex (Emily De Margheritt) is also attending. Trapped in an isolated paradise, surrounded by strangers and nightmares of the past, Cecilia struggles to maintain her bubbly persona. As wounds from the past reopen, ideas for revenge begin to form. 

The interactions between the adult Cecilia, Emma, and Alex are intercut with glimpses of their shared history. Both timelines impact upon one another and their performances are excellent. The seething tension between Alex and Cecilia is palpable. Neither woman can stand the other and yet both are drawn to Emma. Their constant bickering and backbiting cast a terse atmosphere over what should be a fun weekend of celebrations. The first sit-down meal with the group sees Cecilia the point of intrigue for the other guests who know nothing about her, but it quickly becomes a way for Alex to twist the knife and bring all of Cecilia’s angst to the surface again. Their exchanges are difficult to watch and as Cecilia becomes triggered by Alex’s behaviour, those that have lived through any kind of bullying may find themselves reliving a nightmare or two. 

Sissy is one of those projects that looks predictable on paper, but in practice is actually a lot of inspired fun. Once the stressful situation that Cecilia has been placed in has been set-up, the real fun can begin. There’s a happy and vibrant energy that pulses throughout, another way of helping Cecilia cope and block out reality. Sissy is infectiously buoyant and the tone is a perfect mirror for Cecilia herself. Though an adult, she still retains many of her childish traits: the love for super cutesy things, pink, and glitter being a dead giveaway. It’s not that Cecilia is a child, but rather she has retained that innocence, somehow shielding herself and remaining blind to any of life’s complications. More than that though, Cecilia has gotten stuck around the age that her and Emma were besties and uses the weekend as a way to try and reform their friendship. Her plan includes replicating moments from their archive of VHS recordings. The sentiment is lost on Emma and the others, but it further emphasises to the audience that Cecilia isn’t emotionally mature enough to handle the situation she has found herself in. Matching Cecilia’s erratic mind is Kenneth Lampl’s score, which manages to be jovial, serene, and effervescent at all times. This may cause some odd juxtapositions when placed within some sequences, but it perfectly replicates the inner workings of Cecilia’s childlike mind. 

Sissy doesn’t hero worship Cecilia. As the narrative plays out, the audience’s viewing experience is broadened out and allows questions to creep in as to whose side to take. It’s a bold move, but one that injects an extra level of intrigue and holds the mirror up to the audience themselves as they decide which side that they want to believe. 

Once Sissy gets going Barlow and Senes kick up the gear and the pace rockets through the roof. As Cecilia zips through her downward spiral the narrative gets more and more frantic. The matching of pace and manic episodes ensure whiplash levels of insanity for the audience and moves Sissy from the likes of Jill Gevargizian reflective character study The Stylist, into the world of crowd-pleasing midnight movies. A wickedly dark heart is hidden beneath all the glitter stars, pink hues, making Sissy a wildly entertaining journey through a damaged mind.

Wonderfully whimsical, Sissy is wickedly inventive with its story-telling structure, made whole by Aisha Dee’s exceptionally charismatic lead performance. An intoxicating tale of the toxicity of female friendships, the distracting power of social media, and the trauma that childhood leaves behind.

Sissy arrives on Shudder on 29th October 2022.