Sundance 2023: Talk to Me Review
The number of silly games high school kids play to stave off boredom is innumerable. Every generation has its ‘spin the bottle’ or ‘truth or dare’ equivalent, and those kinds of games are perfect material for horror. With easy-to-comprehend rules, the ability to add variables to the mix, and the right blend of people eager enough to push the limits of the game, it’s no wonder that movies like Ouija and Truth or Dare are often box office successes. Adding to the pantheon of teen horror that starts off fun and quickly turns terrifying, Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me introduces an exciting new spin on the possession genre that effectively utilizes tropes for a grief-stricken horror showcase.
Those unfamiliar with the twin-brother directing duo from Australia may be more familiar with them as the founders of the RackaRacka YouTube channel that showcases their talents behind the camera. Their videos exemplify dynamic camerawork, a cheeky sense of humor, and a love for the material they explore. Hence why it’s no surprise to see that same passion and dedication to the craft applied to their feature-length debut, Talk to Me. They take a novel concept, have some fun with it, and then dig deeper into its consequences to craft a nightmare strengthened by stylistic flourishes and strong character work.
Talk To Me begins with a death and only tightens the screws from there. Mia (Sophie Wilde) is a teenager just looking for a distraction from the anniversary of her mother’s death. Aiming to get in on the newest game sweeping the internet, she brings along her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) – who is currently smitten with Mia’s ex-boyfriend, Daniel (Otis Dhanji) – to a party and invites herself to play the new risky game involving ghosts. Replace a ouija board with a severed hand and simply utter, “Talk to me. I let you in,” and you’re now possessed. Of course, the danger of playing with spirits is that you don’t know how malicious they might be, and the game is somewhat like Russian Roulette, so participants get tied to a chair and are only allowed 90 seconds before someone intervenes and tears the hand out of their grip.
As one might expect, things don’t go as planned, and one of the possessions goes very poorly. That’s after a kinetic sequence of teenagers having a blast, essentially riding a high off each round of the game as ghosts enter and exit their bodies. It’s a fun concept presented in just as fun a manner until it’s suddenly not fun at all, and the stakes become extremely real. At this point, Talk To Me leans into a nastiness with its violence and misery that it never tries to bounce back from. The Philippous begin zeroing in on Mia as a character and start doing heavy work to make the grief she has been feeling from her mother’s passing as palpable to the audience as possible.
Talk to Me anchors itself with this level of grief, and Wilde’s performance grounds the teenage unrest with the unraveling of the family unit. Mia’s father is distant, and Mia doesn’t know what more she can do. As her mother’s presence begins reappearing in her life, so does the life she has been living feel like it’s slipping from her grasp. Heightening that divide is an emphasis on abstract imagery, taking Mia through the spiritual world and blurring the lines resulting from her grief. It’s a solid attempt to capture the fear of losing it all to maintain a connection, but there’s an uphill battle, as Talk to Me doesn’t give the necessary time to that grief before everything hits the fan.
Sometimes it can feel like the Philippous are too busy with stylistic flourishes to find the heart of the screenplay. Still, when they start approaching it with the same enthusiasm, it’s a glorious mix of macabre special effects and a gloomy atmosphere. Their resume before Talk to Me shows their strengths well, which results in an extremely strong showcase of their talents as directors. The writing could be a little more nuanced, but it’s a lean feature-length debut that frequently reminds us of horror’s ability to terrify and reflect on both the living and the dead. Stylish and bold in its execution, Talk to Me is playfully violent in its deep dive into the living’s obsession with co-existing with the deceased.