This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Danny & Michael Philippou
Starring: Sophie Wilde, Alexandra Jensen & Joe Bird
Rated: R (strong/bloody violent content, some sexual material & language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 35 minutes
“Talk to Me” is a mix of tension and transgressions without being straight-up terrifying at any given point. The power of YouTuber's Danny and Michael Philippou's feature debut is not necessarily that it scares or frightens, but more that it makes you feel the guilt and anxiety that Mia (Sophie Wilde) is dealing with in the wake of doing whatever it takes her to get back to a place of peace.
Like many a movie in the horror genre as of late, “Talk to Me” also deals in coping with grief, loss, and ... you guessed it ... the trauma caused by such experiences. Unlike many of these similarly themed therapy sessions though, Mia, while being the protagonist of the piece, is not our hero. Mia is the lead, but also the leading cause of our frustration in this twisted game of possession as she’s the kind of main character who brings everyone around her down with her due to her own troublesome experiences. And it’s not that her struggles shouldn’t be or are not supported, but worse - it’s that they are - and that support is taken advantage of. Furthermore, she is so desperate to return her life to what she always imagined it would be rather than how it's turned out that she has no sense of remorse or awareness of the implications of her actions. Mia becomes so wrapped up in fulfilling her own desires to the point she is blinded to all the wreckage she’s left in her wake.
To this extent, we are still naturally invested in Mia's arc, but what this more hostile relationship with our protagonist does is allow the sympathy for the supporting cast to increase. This is especially true with Mia's unofficial adoptive family made up of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade's little brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their mother (Miranda Otto). While Wilde is the breakout star of the piece and deservedly so as my reaction to her complicated character clearly implies she handled her job well the turn that was most surprising for me was Bird. There is an immediate empathy you feel for this younger, often neglected but largely endearing presence who is torn between his own, immature friends and Jade and Mia, whom he feels he fits in with more. There are two scenes between Mia and Riley that establish their dynamic, but the key interaction is their first one in which they come across a dying kangaroo from a car strike on their drive home (this is made by, produced by, and set in Australia). Riley tells Mia they need to put it out of its misery, but Mia can’t follow through. This concept of putting someone in pain out of their misery is something Mia simply can’t process on either side; whether death is peace or a direct result of her actions – she can’t deal with the consequences. There are reasons these traits and these dynamics are emphasized early on though as they not only remain relevant but pay off tremendously throughout the prime middle section of the film before the film slightly deviates by devolving into a mix of possible outcomes for the established premise that ultimately never feel as satisfying as one might have hoped given the strength of the first two acts. That is, until the final moment swoops in to salvage what felt like a mounting set of, “but why?” questions as that final frame both answers and astounds in a positive fashion.
Much of what elevates the Philippou's thoughts on trauma and grief is the way in which they stage and personify their source of evil. The whole bit is that a couple of kids Jade and Mia know from school have this embalmed hand – the horror trope of a possessed object being passed from one person to the next – that allows spirits to be conjured should you perform the right steps. This is initially looked at as nothing more than a game, a party trick, but Mia has her own intentions with this possible gateway to the other side. There isn’t time or space for skepticism around whether this is legit or not as we’re 20 minutes in and the characters, plot and motives have been established and the action is underway. The first time we experience the ritual is when Mia “goes under” and the camera movement changes from a casual floating observer to a locked-in, roller coaster track that pushes the viewer into this underworld. We see glimpses of the tormented souls Mia meets, but it is the amped-up sound design with extra, stomach-churning effects and throat-gurgling sounds that add to the ambiance. Best make-up shouldn’t be out of the question come awards season either as the consistent and ever-intensifying darkness of the eyes and around the nose and lips - as if a disease is spreading further the longer they remain under this spell - is really effective in communicating how far down the rabbit hole they’ve run. The Philippou's ensure these symptoms and the effects of this experience remain consistent throughout – especially with Bird’s character – but are smart enough to change up and differentiate how this ritual is portrayed the more comfortable our characters become in performing it. There’s a wonderful little insert shot of a dog sitting outside the room where a previous run of the ceremony went sideways that is pretty cheeky, but much needed in terms of levity and worth noting as the directors sprinkle a few of these throughout.
Effective. Effective and efficient. These are the key words that kept springing to mind the longer “Talk to Me” went on. It became more and more evident with each passing scene how precise these guys were in their depiction of the story they desired to tell and how unrelenting they wanted the film to feel in how they dealt with the pacing. Whether it be around the imagery, the way the sound design works in accordance with the editing, or countless other little facets that help heighten the intensity of the experience it’s beyond clear these brothers have a knack for conveying what they want to say in an effective manner. The issue “Talk to Me” encounters is if what they want to say is interesting or at least made to feel fresh enough through this effective execution to remain engaging or feel insightful. That is to say, “Talk to Me” left me very conflicted in that I had a hard time reconciling both how much this pissed me off narratively along with how irritating Mia becomes in her choices with how much I admire how well the Philippou's seemingly achieved what they set out to achieve. I certainly don’t need to like or agree with a film's protagonist in order to like or appreciate a movie, but some of the character choices here are so infuriating and only negated, again, by how effective the storytelling is that it was difficult to decipher between disappointed and disturbed. This is best equated to the kind of “scary” this “scary movie” is meant to be as this isn’t the type of horror film meant to frighten, but more the type of horror film meant to haunt. There is some genuinely upsetting and unsettling imagery in the film to the point I wanted to look away not because I was scared of what was happening or going to happen, but because I couldn't (or didn't want to) deal with the reality of what was unfolding in front of me. I couldn’t help myself though and naturally had to stay glued to the screen to know what was coming next because I was engaged because even if I couldn’t reconcile my own instinct with the film’s choices, it was still … you guessed it … too damn effective to ignore or dismiss.