Directors: Hannah Barlow, Kane Senes (Australia). Year of Release: 2022
A home movie of two girls, Emma, who is white and Sissy, who isn’t. They have known each other all their lives – longer even. Their mothers were friends, and they communed with each other from their respective wombs. They pledge eternal friendship with a lack of cynicism only available to the very young. In the video, they make a pact: “No matter what happens, we end up in the nursing home together. You’re the only person I want to poop my pants with.”
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Sissy has reinvented herself as Cecilia, an influencer who runs the Sincerely Cecilia Insta account, purveying New Age bullshit to her 200,000 Followers. Repeating the mantra “I am loved. I am special. I am enough. I am doing my best. We all are”, Sissy obviously hits a nerve with her audience, who shower her with messages telling her that she’s the best as they watch her online videos.
Yet it is not clear how much Cecilia is able to practise what she preaches. Off camera, she lacks self-confidence, and seems to only sustain herself from the heart emojis sent by people who she doesn’t know. She doesn’t have any obvious friends, and since she earns enough money being paid to endorse overpaid tat (latest example, the Elon Mask), she spends most of her time on social media while eating pizza from the box. She doesn’t have much contact at all with any real people.
One day in the Chemist’s, Cecilia bumps into an equally grown up Emma. Emma is about to get married, and insists that Cecilia join her that evening at a celebratory karaoke evening. In the club, a drunken Emma introduces her best friend ever, and they sing together. When we later see more footage of the video from the opening scene, we realise that the song and accompanying actions is something they performed since they were very young. Emma’ fiancée, Fran, looks on jealously.
Emma now ups the ante, and invites Cecilia to her hen week-end out in the middle of nowhere. Cecilia, who wasn’t sure about the karaoke, looks even less excited about so much enforced company, but Emma’s not taking No for an answer. Driving to the secluded cottage, Emma hits and seriously injures a kangaroo jumping across the road. Fran takes over the wheel and reverses over it, putting it out of it’s misery. This scene may be a portent of things to come.
It turns out that the cottage is not the isolated shack beloved of horror directors, but a luxury home, not unlike the one in Parasite. It is owned by Alex, who used to bully Sissy at school. We are given many intimations that Sissy was provoked into revenge, but don’t learn the full story till later. But as soon as the party arrives, Alex takes Emma outside, and we can hear her through a closed door “why did you bring that Psychopath?”
Alex tells Cecilia that she wasn’t expecting her, so she has not bed. But of course she’s welcome to sleep on the sofa. Alex then uses Cecilia’s job to turn the others against her. There is a wonderfully bitchy dinner table conversation where everything is sweetness and light until Alex asks Cecilia what it is that she actually does. As Cecilia explains she helps people with their problems, Alex asks about her qualifications. As Cecilia stumbles, we learn that Fran is studying to be a psychologist.
Sissy, the film, largely does what it sets out to do. It is well acted, and when it moves into the realm of horror, it is suitably bloody. The characters are complex – not one of them is wholly sympathetic, and you find it easier to root against people rather than finding any single one particularly sympathetic. So you should go and see it. Nonetheless, I do have some reservations, which should only be taken in the context of the film as a whole being a Good Thing.
My first worry is that the film is too ambitious. It shows how people are drawn towards self-help because of perceived inadequacies in their own lives. It shows that Influencers are often winging it, and do not necessarily know any more than their audience. It shows people diverting themselves with trash tv. It may just be me, but I couldn’t escape the sense of a certain snootiness here. Of course, the plebs fall for this sort of bullshit, but we’re way too sophisticated to be distracted.
Then there is the gender blind casting. Now don’t get me wrong. Films have been dominated by rich white men for too long, and I’m all for a bit of positive discrimination. So in principle that the group which attends the hen party is a group of women with a token gay, disabled man, and that two of the women are Black and another one of Asian origin. The whole party is to celebrate a gay wedding for God’s sake. Such groups of friends really exists. Suck it up, bigots.
And yet this “race blindness” causes a problem when we look back to the bullying that Sissy experienced at school. Her tormentors were all white, mainly blonde. And we are asked to believe that there was absolutely no racial dimension to this bullying? What started as an indubitably good thing – we should not unduly point out people’s racial background when it is not relevant to the plot – ends up hamstringing debate. Colour blindness sometimes means not talking about racism.
There is also the danger that attributing Cecilia’s obvious narcissism to some sort of psychosis lands you in an unfortunate modern horror trope which does not see “evil” as a product of social conditions but as a mental disturbance. But I think I’m already overthinking things way too much. If you think too hard about Sissy, then you can find reasons to put you off it. There are two possible responses to this. My preferred response is to sit back, just enjoy it, not to think too hard.