TALK TO ME (2023)
Directed Danny and Michael Philippou
I don’t mean to sound like a stereotypical boomer, moaning about the things kids these days do. But considering the sheer range of daft challenges they seem to partake in, be it scoffing cinnamon by the spoonful or “planking” in high places, shaking a ceramic hand to speak to the dead isn’t too far-fetched. So goes the premise for the feature debut of YouTube short makers Danny and Michael Philippou – who have made the leap from fetching coffee on The Babdook to directing a feature debut. It’s a harrowing little horror from Down Under that does a fresh riff on The Monkey’s Paw story.
It all starts with a nasty little cold open that acts as a statement of intent: this movie isn’t going to be mucking about. Sometime later, Mia (Wilde) is grieving the memory of her mum, who died after an overdose everyone says was accidental. With her emotionally closed-off dad not wanting to talk about it, she finds comfort in her friend Jade (Jensen), her brother Riley (Bird), and partying with the other local ‘burb youths. Only they aren’t doing drugs, or at least that’s not all they’re doing – they’re also filming each other using the aforementioned hand. A ghost appears after a brief shake and the command ‘Talk to me.’ If they invite that person in, they take over their body – something that’s both frightening and euphoric. Provided they don’t break the 90-second limit, no harm is done. Things backfire after Riley gets a shot and channels Mia’s mum.
Yes, this is yet another supernatural chiller with loss and trauma at its core. I understand people’s skepticism – it seems every other horror is about this. Yet rather than treating its monsters as an extended metaphor ala Smile, Possum, The Night House, or Men (among others), this is more about Mia’s feelings of distress that this weird party game helps her combat. A standout montage in the first act, where characters take turns to use the spooky hand, shows how it can be fun. And as characters’ eyes glaze over, and they temporarily lose their inhibitions, it almost makes you want a shot. In that respect, Talk To Me is more about escapism or drugs and how grief can push us to extreme behaviours rather than bravely confronting the past. So I was impressed with how well it grounds its fantastical premise in the mundanity of everyday teenage life. There are the dizzy, sometimes scary, highs. But, like all films of this type, then comes the aftermath when things get out of control.
There are some solid scary scenes peppered throughout this movie. The ghosts we get little glimpses of are excellent, as are the brief glimpses into the world the hand links them to. I was also impressed with the folly and make-up that reflects the Philippou brothers’ background in special effects work. They are not reinventing the wheel – particularly as it gets closer to the classic possession in the second half, and we are hit by many familiar tropes, including one of my least favourite trends in modern horror. Still, their punky aesthetic and sense of timing are exemplary, gifting audiences a sense of peril from the beginning. We know things aren’t going to go well, and we like the characters enough not to want to see them punished. But same time, it’s impossible to stop watching. This brings me to the film’s main achievement. As effective as the genre bits are, the character drama is the most rewarding aspect of Talk To Me.
The relationships are well realised, written with enough nuance and compassion to keep them interesting. Mia is an often frustrating protagonist who makes a series of awful choices. Yet we never doubt her affection for her surrogate family and the guilt she harbours as things derail. I was particularly impressed with the scenes she shared with Riley, which showed how young and older semi-sibling bonds can be enriching and destructive – when she wants to be the cool adult in the room. Wilde is an excellent actor, capable of plummeting emotional depths even when the film revolves around not talking about the things driving her. And while the truth about her mum lacks an emotional punch, with the plotting going more for the head than the heart, she handles the pain of not knowing well. Still, it’s good that the film retains some mystery. The Philippous have left themselves plenty of avenues to grow the universe, be it through prequels or sequels. Like the teens at the party, during the good times, I’d gladly go back for more.