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Talk to Me

Danny and Michael Philippou's “Talk to Me” cleverly imagines a deadly craze that would easily sweep a generation—this horror movie's plausibility is one of the freakiest things about it. The social media-feeding frenzy involves spiritual possession, made possible by grasping a ceramic-encased severed hand graffitied with names and symbols that suggest a long line of previous owners. Aussie teens like Mia (Sophie Wilde), Jade (Alexandra Jensen), and eventually Jade's younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) are the latest players in such a game, which has them seeing dead people and giving them access to their tied-up bodies for 90 seconds, tops. When the spirits are "let in," the teens suddenly shoot backward in a chair (the camera jolting back with them, the sound mix dropping out), and their pupils burst into a deep black. They shiver, choke, and asphyxiate as if they are gonna die. Meanwhile, their giddy friends surround them, filming. What a rush, as a YouTuber probably once said about eating Tide pods.  

It's a brilliant device for a modern horror story (Daley Pearson is credited as the concept's creator), and a franchise waiting to happen (in the case of horror, that often means a fruitful idea is intact, like when "Final Destination," "The Purge," and "Saw" first debuted.) “Talk to Me” could easily lead to a higher body count or a more directly spooky story in its sequels. But the game begins small here with a sincere pitch that aims for the gut—this first installment is about watching someone be possessed by horrible ideas of grief, and the damage their decisions inflict on their loved ones. 

There are rules for how this dance with death can be done "safely," and in a snappy montage that mixes partying with possessive play, we get a great sense of what extreme fun it can be for Mia, her friends, and the hand's current owners, Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio). But everything shifts in a nifty, nasty instant when one of the spirits that overtakes young Riley turns out to be Mia's mother who died by suicide two years previous. Or at least the spirit claims to be. A freaked-out Mia forces this one communication with the dead to go on too long, putting Riley in a coma with many self-inflicted gashes on his head, an attempt by the spirit to kill his soul and fully control his body. 

The second half of "Talk to Me" suffers from being yet another recent horror movie built on the trauma of loss, but it gets a special amount of layers from Sophie Wilde's excellent performance. It's not just about Mia trying to hold onto contact with her mother, but her need to not lose her new family, that of Jade, Riley, and their protective mother Sue (played with dry toughness by Miranda Otto) in the process. We ache for Mia to be OK, especially since she's such a bright personality—her constant yellow wardrobe always pops, and she has sweet scenes with Riley, like when the Philippous hard-cut to them early on bursting out Sia's "Chandelier" during a night-time car ride. Wilde exemplifies a feverish, youthful need to balance both the pains of the past and a jeopardized future, and by trying to hack the hand's magic, she isolates herself from reality in the process. "Talk to Me" could have been more rote without such voluminous work, but Wilde's tragic interpretation—her big-screen debut—is one for the horror movie history books. 

The Philippous rarely show us the TikToks or Snapchats that document these possessions, but we don't need to see them: these freaky scenarios play out exactly as they might in real life, with writers Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman allowing teens to be teens. When everything starts to fall apart—and souls are on the line—the characters just become more stubborn, their desperation making things worse and even more dangerous. "Talk to Me" has the bare wisdom of a coming-of-age tale, and while it conjures a few excellent moments of guffawing disbelief from the audience, it never talks down to the audience it wants to reflect. The Philippous' filmmaking comes from YouTube (known there as RackaRacka), and their eye for this psychology is more savvy than it is cynical. 

A good deal of nasty fun is scattered throughout "Talk to Me," especially for fans of well-made blood-dribbling head wounds, sound design that makes you wince without relying on jump scares, and a tone that doesn't play nice. Plus, the movie's playful possession scenes get better and better (the movie's young cast is impressive wriggling in those chairs, even if the possession make-up style looks familiar to so many other movies). But "Talk to Me" can bank too much of its quality on simply being a good pitch best fulfilled later—it's hard not to see its gripping opening scene of terror, a one-shot through an unrelated, crowded party, as an isolated red herring not followed through by the rest of the film. The movie's overall restraint is admirable, and best felt in the numerous moments when the camera holds on someone's scared face, so we can build dread about what ghoul they are looking at. But "Talk to Me" risks holding back too much despite its excellent concept's promise. 

Whether or not we get more rounds with this hand of fate, "Talk to Me" lingers as a striking and confident directorial debut from the Philippous, whose penchant for hyper-active YouTube fight and prank vids is mostly evident in this movie's emotional carnage. With such a playful send-up on a possession story, the Philippous have successfully crossed over into feature filmmaking, but it will take a little more genre ingenuity for us to keep talking about them. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Talk to Me movie poster

Talk to Me (2023)

Rated R for strong/bloody violent content, some sexual material and language throughout.

95 minutes

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