The debut from YouTubers-turned-filmmakers the Philippou brothers makes for sharp, bloody viewing, even if it runs out of steam
Slick, entertaining and gnarly, Talk to Me certainly makes for a potent feature film debut, even as it creaks under the weight of its cribbing and nipping from other films. This is very firmly in the vein of the last ten years of so-called “elevated” horror: a hint of the identity-searching racial politics of Get Out, the fraught parental relationships of Hereditary, the stylistic whiz kid tricks of It Follows, albeit with a distinctly zoomer edge. At its best, Talk to Me is sharp, bloody, and yes, scary filmmaking. At its worst, it’s confused and derivative.
The conceit here is that a group of teens in suburban Adelaide get ahold of a mysterious occult ceramic hand. Light a candle, hold the hand as if you’re shaking it and say the film’s title and you’ll be temporarily possessed by a dead spirit. The practice goes viral amongst said teens, inflamed by social media and peer pressure, pushing everyone to go as far as possible, as teens are wont to do.
Our protagonist Mia (Sophie Wilde) is herself particularly vulnerable, having lost her mother to suicide the year before. Shutting herself off from her dad (Marcus Johnson), she finds solace in a surrogate family: her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade’s little brother Riley (Joe Bird) and mother Sue (Miranda Otto). Naturally, things get a bit of out hand when Mia’s mother supposedly appears via Riley, and everything goes downhill from there.
The film revels in nasty, eye-gouging violence, and is all the better for it: YouTubers-turned-filmmakers the Philippou brothers brothers imbue the film with a fiery showman’s energy, befitting of Talk to Me’s thematic ties to viral social media inflected teen behaviour. But the real meat of the film lies in the seances, a juicy visual allegory for teen identity aided by excellent makeup effects and flashy camerawork, as a succession of gullible youngsters go through the process of becoming temporarily possessed. Though not explicitly stated, questions of racial and sexual identity are clearly at play here, each possession often leading to a reckoning with one’s sense of self, even going as far as extreme self-harm.
However, the thematic richness of this conceit does lose steam by the film’s latter parts. The inner logic of how these possessions work seems to fall apart in the final third. That’s not normally a problem in horrors, which work best in nightmarish logic, but that aforementioned visual showmanship doesn’t quite make the requisite jump forwards in that final third to sustain it. More egregiously, the use of Mia’s trauma after her mother’s suicide feels undercooked and underdeveloped, never quite meshing into the potential for exploring self-identity promised by the central conceit, although the superb central performance by Sophie Wilde does mitigate against the script’s failings.
Still, it’s quite clear there’s a lot of raw talent on show here. When it works, Talk to Me is a finely-judged zeitgeisty horror, with plenty of blood and bone on show and more than enough to chew down on. Even its slightly derivative nature and weak spots aren’t enough to dampen down a gratuitously fun time.
Talk to Me is released in UK cinemas on 28 July.Where to watch