A few minutes into the Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes-directed feature Sissy, the titular character Cecilia (Aisha Dee) — Sissy for short, although she wouldn’t want you to call her that — reaches for a box of tampons. Splattered across its façade is its brand name, which is also a stellar description of the film itself: “Bloody Brilliant.” You can almost hear the squelching of brains and guts as Cecilia picks up the slim box.
Sissy is a slow-burner with a wicked sense of humor that takes its time as it charts the unravelling of a delicate psyche. A film about a bachelorette party gone so, so wrong, Sissy excavates the all-consuming power of friendships, interrogating how or whether friends and various modern self-help fads can address deep-seated psychological issues. All this as it gradually — and then suddenly — descends into unabashedly delightful gore.
Sissy begins like a fairy tale made for the Instagram Explore page. It opens, all rusty orange and aquamarine, on twenty-something Cecilia, an Instagram self-help guru who teaches her massive following how to survive panic attacks and practice self-care and love. On Instagram, Cecilia has all the love she could want, as the people she teaches to love themselves in turn shower her with love and validation. In her real-world life, however — outside of the bright lights of her phone screen and off the stage she’s created in her home (which consists of a ring light and bright backdrop) — Cecilia lives in an almost unnavigable darkness, even when it’s sunny out. She doesn’t light her small apartment (save for with the soft glow of fairy lights) and eats cold pizza bathed in the pale glare of her TV as it plays a Love Island-esque reality show.
When she’s out stocking up on tampons one day, Cecilia runs into her childhood best friend Emma (played by co-director Barlow). For thorny reasons that evidently make Cecilia apprehensive and that go unexplained at this point, the two friends haven’t seen each other in years, and Emma, remembering only the good, invites Cecilia to her bachelorette weekend at a friend’s place located deep within the wilderness. Emma’s fiancee Fran (Lucy Barrett) and friends Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks) will also be in attendance. It turns out that the place belongs to Alex (Emily De Margheriti), a girl who used to bully Cecilia and who “stole” Emma from her. As the weekend wears on, Cecilia becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the group and learns of their animosity toward her. The rest of the film follows an insidious kind of silent bullying of Cecilia, who increasingly becomes thirsty for revenge against Alex.
From the start, way before Cecilia gets to the house in the woods, there’s something grotesque crawling beneath Sissy’s surface, right at the edges of each of its frames. It’s a kind of insanity within Cecilia that blurs the film’s edges and laces her first encounter with Emma with a strange acidity; it’s in the pauses between words that drag on a bit too long, verging on unbearable awkwardness. There’s something the matter with Cecilia, the film seems to say, and it relishes in this thought. In the first few scenes, Barlow and Senes expertly sow the seeds for the madness that will bloom later, creating an endlessly captivating character in Cecilia — one who, though she is loveable and shy and kind in the way she helps others to feel good about themselves, is always walking the edge of madness. It’s a walk so fine one wonders whether one is insane for thinking Cecilia to be insane. And herein lies the film’s deftness and dark humor: its ability to create a beguiling anti-hero who we want to keep safe from the nasty and bullying Alex, even as she threatens — or has us questioning — our own sense of sanity.
The more Cecilia’s psyche fractures, the more this film bleeds — literally. This begins with a mere period stain, but Barlow and Senes are unrepentant in letting the blood and brains flow and ooze as Cecilia becomes more and more unhinged. A curiously wonderful thing about this film is its ability to endear Cecilia to us and make us loathe Alex and her cohort, even as the latter group seem to be the ones terrorized. In one frame, Cecilia commits a heinous act, and immediately in the next, she pulls up Instagram, going live to speak to her following about the peace-inducing power of nature. She is so well-developed and is so deftly portrayed by Dee that we find ourselves rooting for her until the film’s blood-red end. Thanks to Dee, Cecilia seems lived-in and fleshed-out, her rich and convoluted and roiling inner life easy to read in Dee’s movements, her walk, and her eyes. Moment after moment, Dee is Sissy as she clutches her phone and scrolls through memories of her and Emma, working to find a psychological equilibrium.
Barlow, Senes, and Dee do an excellent job of crafting the character of Cecilia; she is an instant classic of legendary proportions. Not only does she show us how important childhood friendships remain — that they aren’t simply forgotten or erased from the brain with time — she also shows us what it looks like to work to be a healthier, more stable version of oneself and what it looks like to try to be healthy even as one feels these efforts might be futile. Time and again in Sissy, Cecilia sits down and does the breathing exercises she Instagrams about as her world crumbles around her, momentarily seeming to find hope in the breaths she takes. Though it might be easy to ridicule her profession — she’s not a licensed therapist (something Alex’s friends hold against her) — Cecilia seems to be saying that mental balance should be something everyone has access to, even if it doesn’t work all of the time. Herein lies this film’s deliciousness: it finds no shame in being its gross self.