Review by Josh Batchelder, Josh at the Movies
What is scarier to the mind than contemplating our own existence after we die? Many films have covered this topic, often coming away with hopeful scenarios. The cynical, horrifying afterlife of Talk to Me posits a decidedly different thesis. Spirits seem to exist in another realm, swirling in confusion until they are pulled out of it to appease the whims of the living. Talk to Me centers on angsty teenagers making bad decisions, unafraid of the damage they can potentially cause. It’s all fun and games until it’s not. The bleak reality of this film took me aback and left me with a dreary sense of unease that I have been unable to shake since it concluded.
A viral Snapchat video has everyone at school talking. Seeming to portray a spiritual possession, the question remains of its authenticity. Mia (Sophie Wilde) is just trying to do anything to get her mind off the second annual Remembrance Day for her deceased mother. It has been a tough couple of years for her, and the only bright spot is her friendship with her bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade’s picture-perfect family. Lately, though, Jade has been distracted by her obsession with religious goody two-shoes Daniel (Otis Dhanji), who also happens to be Mia’s ex. To pass the time, Mia suggests they attend a spiritual conjuring to see whether or not these alleged possessions are the real deal.
Along for the ride is Jade’s thirteen-year-old brother, Riley (Joe Bird), which undoubtedly seems problematic well before anything troublesome actually occurs. A brief setup establishes the rules. A candle is lit to “open the door” to the spirit world and must be blown out to close it. A ceramic-covered embalmed hand imbued with innumerable symbols must be held tightly. One must utter “talk to me” to see the spirit of the dead, and “let me in” is the phrase that instigates the possession. They can never surpass ninety seconds within the host body, or the spirit may cling to their person permanently. The first time Mia experiences this phenomenon, everything about it feels dangerous, but it becomes almost seductive to Mia. Her friend group makes it into a game, taking turns being tied down and allowing their bodies to be invaded by ghostly spirits.
These antics never feel innocent in any way. From the first time Mia sees the ghastly figure of a dead, bloated woman, directors Michael and Danny Philippou firmly establish that the spirit realm is not to be trifled with. Eventually, Talk to Me does visualize a graphic display of brutality that shocks and awes. For the rest of the runtime, Mia and friends are forced to come to terms with the consequences of their dangerous game. It is difficult to have sympathy for Mia, but she is also acting out based solely on her continued trauma from her mother’s accidental overdose of sleep meds. Her actions are never justified, merely skirting by on the basis that young, stupid people do young, stupid things.
Those on the hunt for relentless bloodshed should look elsewhere; Talk to Me is more intimate character study than chaotic gorefest. For better or worse, Mia is the centerpiece of that study. If Jade’s family is her one happy place, why does she allow anything to come in the way of this relationship? Fracturing the only thing keeping her centered certainly seems like a bad idea, even if unintentionally executed. Romance could still exist between Mia and Daniel, her childhood sweetheart, but why even stoke the flames of this potential union knowing one’s best friend has yet even to kiss him? Conflicted scenarios rush through Mia’s mind, and Sophie Wilde delivers a nuanced performance covering all the complexities. A full-circle ending doubles down on the cyclical terror of death itself.
While Talk to Me isn’t quite tuned in to modern culture as much as it may think (does anyone really use Snapchat anymore?), the script from Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman is surprisingly quite sharp. These teenagers feel authentic in their language and attitudes, and Sophie Wilde, in particular, emerges as the film’s MVP. A sophisticated sense of style and a pure understanding of the larger themes prove that the horror renaissance of the 2020s is here to stay. One can only hope that the future is not as grim as this unparalleled directorial debut depicts.
Talk to Me screened at 2022’s Sundance Film Festival.