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Behind the Glitter: A Deep Dive into “Sissy” at Fantasia 2022

Helmed by the up-and-coming Aussie duo Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, the film “Sissy” emerges as an intricate psychological horror, delving into themes of friendship, trauma, and the complexities of modern mental health against the backdrop of social media. Fresh off its enthusiastically received debut at SXSW, within the anticipated Midnighters lineup (and just before its UK bow at FrightFest), we delve into the nuanced layers of this selection from the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

At the heart of the story is Cecilia (Aisha Dee), a well-known digital influencer and mental health advocate whose content swings between enlightening mindfulness and product placements she’s handsomely compensated for. To her legions of followers, she embodies self-love and fulfillment. However, Cecilia’s world is jolted when she reconnects with her former childhood confidant, Emma (Hannah Barlow). The old friends attempt to rekindle their relationship, severed when they were thirteen. Emma’s invitation to Cecilia, affectionately known as ‘Sissy’, to her bachelorette party sparks the journey to a remote cabin. Joined by Emma’s fiancée Fran (Lucy Barrett), along with Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks), they soon cross paths with Alex (Emily De Margheriti), Cecilia’s childhood nemesis. Attempts at peace are futile, and the tension quickly escalates to bloodshed.

“Sissy” stands out for its ethical ambiguity; instead of clear-cut heroes or villains, the film skillfully weaves a web of shifting loyalties as the histories of Cecilia, Emma, and Alex unfurl. Initially, we sympathize with Cecilia, who visibly harbors deep-seated trauma. As her past with Alex becomes clearer, so does the shared pain between them. Masterfully captured by cinematographer Steve Arnold, the narrative takes us through a visual journey mimicking Cecilia’s online persona, transitioning from lush nature and pastels to the grim realities of her psyche.

Depending on one’s perspective, Cecilia’s later actions could either be read as retributive justice or a tragic result of her inability to face her past and forge genuine connections, underscored by the film’s critique of reality TV culture. “Sissy” reflects not just on Cecilia’s struggle, but on the fabricated world of reality shows like Paradise Lust – a satirical nod to shows like Love Island.

The film’s true triumph lies in its refusal to take sides, instead presenting its leading ladies – Dee, Barlow, and De Margheriti – as multifaceted characters each dealing with their personal demons behind their carefully curated facades.

‘Sissy’s overarching message seems to caution that while we can’t escape our trauma, we can choose who stays in our life. Glitter, a recurring symbol stemming from childhood memories, underscores the futility of trying to gloss over broken friendships. As the film unravels, it poignantly suggests that some relationships are better left behind.

But beyond its profound themes, the film does not shy away from the visceral, evidenced by standout special effects by Larry Van Duynhoven, whose portfolio includes work on recognized Australian films such as Cargo, Upgrade, The Nightingale, and Relic. Balancing character exploration with the tense expectations of a horror narrative, “Sissy” delivers a climax replete with carnage that satiates genre enthusiasts and signals the unraveling of deeply held scars.

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