The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
YouTubers Michael and Danny Philippou helm a potent and propulsive debut that doesn’t skimp on scares or sincerity
“Talk to Me.”
It’s a phrase that begs for connection, to be heard. It’s a sentiment that’s just as easily shared among those who are still alive as much as it is between the living and the dead. And it’s the driving ethos as much as it is the animating line of Michael and Danny Philippou’s breakout festival chiller, which features a group of rebellious Australian teens who stumble upon ghostly possession as a novel new party high.
Mia (a magnetic Sophie Wilde) is two years removed from the suicide of her mother. Frustratingly disconnected from her father, Max (Marcus Johnson), Mia instead finds solace in her tight-knit friend group–notably her bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their single mom Sue (Miranda Otto). Mia also champions the budding romance between Jade and Mia’s ex Daniel (Otis Dhanji), as much as it visibly pains her to do so. At Mia and Jade’s age (and despite Sue’s no-BS efforts), there’s always a house party to spirit off to if things get tense or awkward, full of drugs and alcohol. But Mia’s latest drug comes in the form of a mummified plaster arm, which aloof party animal Haley (Zoe Terakes) claims came from a medium who could talk with the dead.
The rules are effectively simple: light a candle, hold the hand, and say “Talk to Me,” and the dead appear. Allow them in for possession, and you’re granted a 90-second high like never experienced before. Blow out the candle, and that’s that. The results, often a hit on their Snapchat stories, are terrifying as much as they are exhilarating–complete with sclera-black eyes, slamming doors, and other jolts. When the repeated experience teases the possibility of reuniting with her mother, however, Mia can’t get enough–an addiction that may spell doom for Mia and her friends as they let in powers far beyond their control.
A modern horror banger full of propulsive, terrifying sequences, Talk to Me is an effective first feature from the brothers Philippou, collectively of their hit YouTube channel RackaRacka. The scrappy energy of their slickly-produced homegrown VFX bonanzas channels well to feature filmmaking, stretching the limitations of their budget to focus on gut-churning practical effects that wisely never linger too long on camera, to innovative cinematography that translates a demonic possession into a motion-tracking, reality-detaching experience. Like the best chiller directors, the Philippous never aim to repeat the same scare twice–mining their suburban Australian locations for the frights that may linger around every corner.
However, it’s not the indie ingenuity behind the filmmaking that makes Talk to Me’s scares so effective–it’s the sharp, insightful focus on how each of these terrors are borne from the emotional investment we’re encouraged to place in these characters. While we’re given an eye-popping/gouging opening sequence to hook us, there’s plenty in Mia’s tragic past and present to win us over and earn our unease long before the paranormal plaster hand enters the picture. The weaving of a “cursed object” tale amid themes of substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and the perils of whatever dumb adventures we all get up to as teens is skillful and nuanced without falling victim to the trappings of other elevated horrors that feature capital-T Trauma as the real monster. As much as the experience of connecting through the hand exposes Mia to gruesome sights, it’s less terrifying than embracing the truth that her mother isn’t coming back.
This craving for connection further extends to the Philippous’ treatment of the afterlife: existing on the same spectrum of desperation as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (far more understated, just as effective), the specters of Talk to Me exist in a perpetual fleshy throng of viscera and sinew, desperate to feel anything resembling the sensations they took for granted while they were alive. Their manifestation in the real world, forcing their victims to do everything from making out with dogs to increasingly disturbing acts of cranial abuse, is all the more chilling when we consider their desperation to feel is just as cosmically valid as the craven attempts of the living to reach out to their departed loved ones.
The well-rounded cast of youths are all quite talented, effectively dramatizing the sheer boredom of their age where, in a world where death by all sorts of frightening possibilities has become a mundane baseline, communing with the dead via a disembodied hand seems like a natural plan for a Tuesday night. Sophie Wilde in particular is such a find, playing up every sequence of nerve-shredding terror with a wide-eyed fascination amidst her repulsion. Wilde grounds the audience in every moment of boundary-pushing desperation, allowing the scares to hit even harder during Talk to Me’s most anxiety-inducing moments. Zoe Terakes’ Haley is also welcome comic relief, honing into the teenage drive to stand out by way of doing what others can’t or won’t for attention–even if it means pretending to know the storied lore behind something frighteningly out of your realm of understanding. Miranda Otto is the veteran of the cast, and her role as mother Sue is a much-needed adult counterpoint to the teen shenanigans throughout. She knows every single trick her kids can pull, isn’t afraid to call them out on it, and–most importantly–she recognizes that sometimes her kids need to get in a bit of trouble in order for them to learn from it, much like a child touching a hot stove. As relatable as her methods may be, however, it also provides the foundation for Talk to Me’s weightiest moments of gravitas as her grief helps these kids realize just how out of their depth they really are.
An explosive and chilling debut from Michael and Danny Philippou, Talk to Me is a stylishly-made scare-fest whose potent themes linger like the best nightmares long after the credits roll.
Talk to Me hits theaters on July 28, 2023 courtesy of A24.