Be there or die.
There’s some delicate subject matter at the heart of Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes‘ Sissy. It’s unavoidable when you’re spring-boarding off an objectively tragic event that occurred during childhood. Because, while young Sissy may have been the one who physically assaulted Alex when they were age twelve, that isolated and impulsive act of violence was ignited by months or years of psychological torment inflicted by the injured. Does the event make Sissy a monster regardless of those circumstances? Or can society look beyond the visual aftermath and see the invisible pain that drove her to do what she did? Is Sissy still the good person she believes she is or a villain—a “psychopath”—that Alex will justifiably never forgive? The filmmakers daringly choose a bit of both.
Herein lies the problem: allowing us to even think Cecilia (Aisha Dee as Sissy’s rebranded, holistic social media influencer ten years later) is a psychopath provides unfortunate implications. It absolves Alex (Emily De Margheriti) of her bullying and Emma (Barlow) of her unwitting complicity to said bullying by allowing her new BFF (Alex) to terrorize her old BFF (Sissy). What happened back then is so complex to unpack because there truly is no wholly innocent party, so to double-down and let Cecilia be who Alex has always said she was can reductively strip away the nuance of the PTSD and self-worth issues the former has spent years confronting for superficial genre excitement. Just because Barlow and Senes stop short by adding a vengeance element doesn’t erase that truth.
It does, however, let us look the other way by bringing the complexity of the first assault to this fateful reunion. Cecilia is scarred, albeit not in the way Alex was. The event was so traumatic that she created a literal bubble around her to keep as far away from other humans as possible to not risk another incident. That’s why she exists as @SincerelyCecilia online. Not only does the revenue stream allow her to more or less live like a hermit, but telling strangers that they matter also creates a feedback loop wherein they inevitably reciprocate that same mantra with the additional benefit of labeling her their hero. Yes, she sells them potential bunk to pocket a cut of the profits, but she also soothes their soul.
Call it one more mask atop many others both figuratively (friend, psychopath, influencer) and literal (the best exfoliating product on the market of which her 200,000 followers can get a 50% discount with her unique code). Masks to hide behind. Masks to survive. And it’s not like she’s alone in wearing them. Running into Emma at the drugstore after so long is about to reveal how the other half lives with them too. Seeing Cecilia brings back all the good memories of their youth together that Emma completely forgets about the bad. She’s so giddy about inviting her old friend to her bachelorette weekend getaway that she becomes completely blind to the fact Alex is her Maid of Honor. The bully and the assailant are about to collide.
There are some really intriguing themes born from the fireworks. How will Cecilia cope with the guilt? How will Alex react with her long-held rage? How will Emma keep the peace once the reality of the reunion she’s wrought comes to fruition? Add the fiancé (Lucy Barrett‘s Fran) wondering what’s going on considering Cecilia hasn’t been a part of Emma’s life the entire time they’ve known each other and their two friends (Daniel Monks‘ Jamie and Yerin Ha‘s Tracey) having no sympathy for the newcomer when it comes to Alex and it’s like finding oneself behind enemy lines. Anything Cecilia does will be filtered through prejudice and the more everyone discovers about what happened from Alex, the more they’ll gang up on Emma for consciously inviting the pandemonium.
Prepare for carnage because these women are no longer twelve. The shock of blood doesn’t force everyone to freeze anymore. Reactions are now in overdrive. That’s not to say “youth” was a premeditated excuse before. It was simply the reality of a horrible situation. One can’t avoid the consequences of their actions now—especially not with a violent history being all the motive anyone needs to place blame at whoever’s feet are the most deserving (or easiest to condemn). When one domino falls (accidentally or not) the others follow closely behind. Assumptions trump facts. Fear trumps benefit of the doubt. Find yourself a witness unwilling to tell the right version of the story and you become expendable. Dare to pile on with more bullying and become a target.
Barlow and Senes do a great job keeping things entertaining and plausible insofar as how casualties cross the path of their killers. Once everyone is made aware of what Cecilia did to Alex, it’s only a matter of time before tensions boil over in close, secluded quarters. I still found it a bit uncomfortable when the line blurring accident and intent solidifies into the latter considering the stigma it places upon a former sufferer of abuse, but I don’t think the filmmakers are trying to intentionally equate trauma with hysterics. They’re merely moving their plot forward to its bloody conclusion and allowing the messiness of the message to be their sacrifice for fun. It’s not a perfect compromise, but it does do the job. Catharsis ultimately defeats optics.
Either way, no one can question the performances. Monks and Ha are the comic relief. Barrett and De Margheriti give diplomatic mom and uncompromising cop energy respectively. And Dee and Barlow are the victims of nostalgia prone to being manipulated into becoming that which they’ve told themselves they aren’t. Barlow’s Emma is easy to forget in the chaos, but this is a woman with her own guilt and regret when it comes to pushing Sissy away at Alex’s behest. She wants the impossible: to forgive and forget. The saddest part of it all is that Cecilia does too. Dee excels at the internal conflict that results once things get out of control, teasing what could have been a much more dramatic character study than the romp we receive.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival