Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes
Starring Aisha Dee, Hannah Barlow, Yerin Ha, Lucy Barrett, Daniel Monks, & Emily De Margheriti.
Comedy / Horror / Romance / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains significant spoilers.
Turn back, or be spoiled!
There have been a bunch of horror and thriller films over the past few years that have critiqued various aspects of the internet, from the thirst for fame to catfishing to the dark web and beyond. Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes’s Sissy looks at social media through the lens of a once-bullied girl named Cecilia (Aisha Dee) who later grows into a young influencer online. One day Cecilia randomly comes back into contact with an old best friend, along with her childhood bully. After a while more is uncovered about Cecilia’s past with her bully, and the perfect influencer life Cecilia cultivated, along with her carefully constructed persona, starts to crumble fast.
Sissy manages to do a lot in 102 minutes, portraying a complex view on bullying, and providing a searing critique of the way social media warps people, as well as how people use social media to warp the way they’re perceived. Cecilia’s influencer lifestyle conceals inconvenient, uncomfortable truths about herself that she doesn’t want the world to know. When those truths trickle out, Cecilia does whatever she can to stop the world, and her followers, from discovering them—a damning satire of influencer culture and the way the worst sort of people online use their social media reach to avoid responsibility for the shitty things they do.
So much of Sissy is about the way social media becomes a veil behind which many hide, rather than being a transparent look into someone’s life, as it’s so often presented. Cecilia’s YouTube channel name Sincerely Cecilia is an ironic one because of how staged online videos are even at their most ‘natural,’ which we see near the beginning of the film. There’s a great shot of Cecilia after she’s done filming on her homemade set when she walks out into the rest of her apartment, a visual showing the separation between Cecilia’s actual life and the life she presents to others via social media.
Just like with the separation between Cecilia’s set and her real life apartment, social media allows us to frame ourselves how we want others to see us, not how other people see actually us; this can lead to authenticity, and it can also just as easily lead to people creating a fake persona so they can run from themselves and, in Cecilia’s case, their past. An absolutely hilarious yet revealing scene occurs when Cecilia livestreams next to a corpse of someone she’s killed; she appears on the stream smiling and positive like any other video she’d post, though we know the grim reality. Late in the film we see Cecilia’s ultimate lack of identity, the void behind her constructed self, when she dons the “Elon Mask“—an expertly-named commodity she advertises on her YouTube channel—and it becomes the traditional slasher mask, or another one of the figurative masks Cecilia wears to hide her real self.
Cecilia doesn’t just need her influencer persona to make a living, she uses it as a way of validating the persona she crafted after what happened between her and Alex (Emily De Margheriti) over a decade ago. She felt guilt for going overboard against her bully, a guilt she couldn’t face, so she eventually constructed a new identity which allowed her to feel better about herself and also become an influencer. In a couple different scenes after shit hits the fan and someone dies, Cecilia frantically rushes for her phone, hopping online for a dose of social media validation and scrolling through all the positive, loving comments from her followers who believe she’s an inspiration.
Sissy is such a perfect queer horror film because there’s a queer villain, but the villain is not queerness itself like in other films with a lesbian killer. Cinematic history is full of mad and murderous lesbians, from the days of films like Rebecca (1940) to the era of Windows (1980). It’s not only a thing of the past, either, as the killer lesbian trope has continued right up until recent cinematic memory with films like Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) and, to an extent, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). In Sissy, a queer character is allowed to be the villain without actually being villainised and having their queerness weaponised against them as evidence of their monstrosity or violent insanity.
Barlow and Senes separate their film deliberately from the offensive killer lesbian subgenre in a couple significant ways. First, and most importantly, the story doesn’t feature a queer woman chasing a straight girl. Instead we see one lesbian pining for another, playing into some of the violence Cecilia unleashes. Second, Cecilia isn’t the token lesbian in Sissy. There are at least three other queer women in the film’s cast of characters, and none of the other queer women are portrayed as violently insane like Cecila. Simply put: Cecilia is the way she is because she’s a psychopath, not because she’s a lesbian.
Social media is a great way for people to control a narrative, for good or bad purposes. Sissy becomes a darkly comic, violent look at the way horrible people manipulate people on social media to twist the narrative in their favour. How often do awful politicians and violent men (etc) use social media as a way to try pushing an official narrative in the direction that best suits them? Cecilia does the same throughout Sissy, starting with her corpse livestream, and ending with a livestream that vindicates her only because of fate and a skewed perspective she’s more than happy to broadcast. Then once everything’s over, Cecilia is free to create the only narrative available about what happened, protecting her Sincerely Cecilia brand and keeping her real, horrific identity obscured behind social media’s veil.
Sissy is jammed full of smart social media critique, but its take on bullying is also very interesting. Although Cecilia was bullied by Alex when they were kids, her response to the childhood name calling was far beyond anything most people will consider a fair response. The film gives us an intriguing bait-and-switch. We’re placed in Cecilia’s perspective throughout the plot, but she ends up not being the victim she’d like us to believe—more social media tactics—sort of like an unreliable narrator whose narrative becomes less credible as time wears on. Barlow & Senes’s film would make a fantastic double feature with another one-word-title at Fantasia 2022, Carlota Pereda’s Piggy; both explore bullying in smart, complicated ways.
Sissy illustrates how we frame ourselves online from our POV, and we are typically the hero of our story, but it’s always possible we’re the villains of someone else’s tale. The film gradually reveals this dynamic as the truth about Cecilia comes to light. We further see the way manipulative influencers profit from the pain and struggle of others. The biggest takeaway from Sissy is that Cecilia’s story is an allegory about the ways in which awful people continue to escape accepting the responsibility for their actions by twisting the narrative in their favour, essentially brainwashing their followers. Cecila joins the ranks of Logan Paul, Jeffree Star, James Charles, and plenty of others who’ve used their influencer status to sidestep most of the terrible things they’ve done, in some form or another. The film creates dark comedy out of Cecilia’s ability to come out on top, despite her violent acts, but there’s a depressing reality to the plot: sometimes the worst people don’t just escape consequences, they also make a bigger name for themselves because of the nasty things they do.