Talk to Me

On the 2nd anniversary of her mother’s death, teenaged Mia (Sophie Wilde), who’s largely been living at her best friend’s house, does Jade (Alexandra Jensen) a favor by picking up her younger 14 year-old brother Riley (Joe Bird).  On the way home, Riley urges her to put a near dead kangaroo lying on the side of the road out of its misery, but Mia cannot do it.  This episode will turn out to be a foreshadowing of the much higher stakes she will face after she recklessly pursues popularity by participating in an occult possession game inviting a spirit to “Talk to Me.”

Laura's Review: B

Australian twins Danny (who cowrote with Bill Hinzman based on an idea by Daley Pearson) and Michael Philippou, known for their YouTube channel RackaRacka’s blackly comedic horror shorts like ‘Who Wants to See a Dead Body?’ and ‘Ronald MacDonald Chicken Massacre,’ make a promising feature directorial debut with an allegorical horror film greatly elevated by a gripping prologue which feeds right into its eerie conclusion.  The film is heavy on themes such as grief, addiction and teenaged risk-taking if a little light on origin story, the nature of its possessive spirits and the conduit to them left vague.

We’re also unsure just what the riff is between Mia and her dad Max (Marcus Johnson) other than it has to something to do with her mom’s death.   Jade’s single mom Sue (Miranda Otto, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") treats Mia like family and seems a good egg, one wise enough to leave the leash loose enough to acknowledge she knows Jade will be slipping out of the house after hours and willing to look the other way as long as she acts responsibly.  We’ll also be unsure why Hayley (Zoe Terakes), the ringleader of the viral occult gatherings, sneers at Jade for bringing Mia, but their attitude changes when Mia volunteers to play the game.  We’ve glimpsed snippets on the teens’ phones of teens acting bizarrely with heavily dilated pupils and are now about to experience what the supposed appeal is.

Hayley’s partner-in-crime Joss (Chris Alosio) straps a volunteer into a chair, a candle is lit and the participant is supposed to grab the white ceramic coated embalmed hand sitting before him/her and say ‘talk to me.’  They and only they will see a spirit who they may then choose to invite in as Haley and Joss time the adventure, ensuring it lasts no longer than 90 seconds, at which point the spirit may not leave.  The candle, which is lit to open a ‘door,’ must then be snuffed out to close it.  Every possessed encounter is different and recorded for viral viewing. 

That opening prologue, where cinematographer Aaron McLisky tracks Cole (Ari McCarthy) through a boisterous party to retrieve his younger brother Duckett (Sunny Johnson), found slumped in a locked bedroom, ends with a shocking bit of violence, so we’ve been prepared for the worst, but Mia comes out of claiming to feel exhilarated and Haley and Joss’s crowd usually witness these possessions doubled over with laughter.  The Philippous emphasize this at a second gathering, one held at Sue’s house after she’s been assured there will be no party held there, with a carnivalesque montage fueled by Edith Piaf’s “La Foule.”  The most shocking things we witness are one participant stating that Jade makes her boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) ‘go soft,’ then Daniel’s spirit getting very sexual, climaxing by French kissing a bulldog.  Then Riley begs to have a turn, something his sister shuts down immediately.  But when she leaves the room and he continues to beg, Mia suggests that maybe it would be OK if they kept it to just 60, or even 50 seconds for the fourteen year-old.  At first Riley reacts rather violently, leading Mia to ask them to cut it short, but when his possessor reveals herself, Mia takes him over the limit in order to talk to her mother (Alexandria Steffensen).  What happens to him next is gruesome and Sue will accuse Mia of giving him drugs, none of the teens fessing up to what they actually were doing.  Mia finds herself an outsider again and her attempts to help Riley only pull her farther into the spirit world.

Creating ten years of YouTube content and working on such films as “The Babadook” have given the Philippous great experience as evinced by their craftsmanship here.  Performances are strong across the board, the cinematography keeps us inside the action with close-ups, tracking shots and rotating pans and the editing is sharp.  But while the film’s opening is shocking and its chaotic denouement creatively presented, the film has few moments that are actually scary, its tone leaning more toward eerie.  Narratively, the brothers show a deft hand for foreshadowing and layer in warnings about peer pressure, but we never truly understand the nature of the world these teens are talking to and why they appear to target certain individuals.   Maybe that is fodder for the sequel and if “Talk to Me” isn’t entirely satisfying it does something important – it ends perfectly.

Weird trivia note – “Talk to Me” is the third movie since “Bardo” to feature the axoltl, a salamander that retains its larval characteristics, remaining aquatic.                     

A24 releases "Talk to Me" in theaters on 7/28/23.