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SXSW 2022 Review: ‘Sissy’ Takes Self Help to New Lows

SXSW 2022 Review: ‘Sissy’ Takes Self Help to New Lows

If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. This was a parental trope that I’m sure most are familiar with, but Sissy proves it’s more than just an old wives’ tale. Starring Aisha Dee and co-written and co-directed by Kane Senes and Hannah Barlow, Sissy is a horror film that will have you questioning your alliances to excellently flawed characters. 

Dee plays Sissy (‘It’s Cecilia now”) an Instagram wellness influencer who boasts over 200k followers. @SincerelyCecilia flaunts wellness habits like roping, meditation, mantras, and breathing exercises. However, she seems to get her own self-care via the comments and likes she receives from her adoring fans.  

One day she runs into her childhood best friend, Emma (Hannah Barlow), who invites her to her bachelorette party and subsequent hen’s weekend. What Emma fails to tell Cecilia is that the hen’s weekend will be hosted by Emma’s new best friend/Cecilia’s enemy, Alex (Emily de Margheriti). In response to bullying, Cecilia maimed Alex when they were kids. Alex has never forgotten nor forgiven. Emma feels this is the perfect opportunity for the two to finally bury the hatchet (and hopefully not in the other’s face… again). The group is filled with people who have inhabited Emma’s life since Cecilia was removed from it. 

There’s Jamie, the fabulously handicapable queer man who proves to be “Team Alex” from moment one. And Yerin Ha’s Tracey is more interested in the Big Brother meets Love Island style reality TV show than any of the drama in the group. Finally, we have Emma’s nearly betrothed, Fran (Lucy Barrett) who has heard all about Cecilia in the two days, it’s been since the two women reconnected. 

I mention Jamie picking sides because it’s something the film demands from you almost immediately. Was Cecilia justified in the act of aggression she performed against Alex? Was she “just” a kid? Or is violence never justified? Interestingly, the wounds are carried throughout the film. Alexandra is caught completely off guard when Cecilia arrives and is none too happy but tries (poorly) to keep the peace for Emma. 

The scene is ripe for shenanigans. The group is in a private resort house in the middle of the wilds. They ignore Cecilia in one moment and then overwhelm her with criticism the next. Throughout, you’ll find yourself either justifying Cecilia’s actions or wondering if they deserve what they get. As Cecilia begins to unravel, so unravels the viewer’s defense of her, so unravels the notions that maybe these were just unfortunate accidents and not acts of violent revenge? Maybe she does deserve it when the tables are turned on her. 

Sissy has a lot of things that work. The young actors that played the child versions of Emma and Sissy (Camille Cumpston and Amelia Luke, respectively) do a fantastic job of adding context to the tension between Emma and Cecilia. When Cecelia sees Emma she tries to run away but, Emma catches her at the register and demands that Cecelia is reintroduced back into her life. 

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A lot of flack is given to influencers, especially those who profit financially from their followers. There are tales of people who quit long-standing careers just to have their passions be crowdfunded. @SincerelyCecilia is exactly that. She’s sincere in her intentions to help though she may be forsaking the help she’s getting in return. Whenever she reads a positive comment, we see her pupils dilate and the hair rise on her arm. She’s truly her best self when she’s online, and it doesn’t bother her that the outside doesn’t always seem to match. We watch her eat cold pizza in a dark apartment and turn on her crappy television to relax. 

Though she may be sincere, she’s not entirely authentic. Dee does a fantastic job presenting Cecilia’s character, flaws and all. This is what makes her so endearing and relatable when you learn about the bullying she endured at the hands of Alex. When we open the film, we understand that Emma and Cecilia were the best of friends, but what’s a little more abstract is why they stopped. Emma clearly chose aside and refused to acknowledge how that may have hurt Cecilia in the long run. 

It’s interesting to note that outside of two male speaking roles, the cast is made entirely of women, including our soon-to-be married couple. There’s something so universal in the devastation, joy, dedication, and absolute provisional nature of childhood relationships between girls. The song Sister by Sister2Sister  is prominently displayed. The connection between Emma and Cecilia, whether at school age or as adults, carries the exact same energy. It’s electric and innate the way the actors fall into this trope. They play with just the right amount of desperation and mania. 

I only have one real complaint with the film, and it has to do with the score. It’s present nearly throughout the whole movie. The sweeping instrumentals help pin scenes, even those filled with dialogue or backstory. This is very effective, and the music supervisor went to great lengths to match the score to each scene. The issue is the volume. When it distracts or worse yet, overwhelms the necessary dialogue, it is disappointing. There was a scene where all of the hen party, sans Cecilia, were talking about her while she hid behind a tree out of sight. I would have liked to have been able to clearly hear everything. 

Sissy is harrowing, but only because so many of us have seen the edge that Cecilia topples over. The horror isn’t just in the gruesome murders we witness onscreen, but also in the fact that many of us probably had these raging revenge dreams, we just also had the good sense to keep them in our heads. 

Sissy premiered Friday, March 11, 2022, at South by Southwest.

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