There’s four things you can count on in life: death, taxes, Dua Lipa getting sued for Levitating, and a standout horror flick getting its deserved word of mouth buzz. By now, many have already heard of this intriguing Australian-produced fable about a mysterious hand that acts as a gateway to the dead. The movie feels vivid in its vision, yet quaint in its setting. It efficiently uses its low budget to take us to some terrifying places, combining body horror, practical effects, and (purposely) CGI that crosses the uncanny valley. What makes Talk To Me sit with you for far longer than its runtime, is that the film does what most supernatural chillers should ought to do – combining horrific imagery and scares with genuine tragedy, pathos, and relatability.
After a chilling opening, the film plunges us immediately into a tense and untenable family dynamic. Mia (Sophie Wilde) is a melancholic young woman, finding solace in her best friend Jade’s (Alexandra Jensen) single-parent family. This takes place in the aftermath of the destruction of Mia’s own family, the anguish of which can still be seen beneath her humorous facade. You’d think a teen who suffered such great loss would be handled with care by her peers – on the contrary, everyone hates this bitch. At best, some tolerate her, for a few at worst: it’s on sight!! Not content to simply languish in misery porn, the filmmakers do not depict Mia as a perfect angel, but one guilty of her own transgressions. This is a movie about trauma (I know, how original), but the victim is no angel by any means. Yet Mia is empathetic because she desires peace and has been afforded no guiding lights, making her susceptible for any means of escape.
But if tragedy is the backstory, peer pressure is the story’s catapult. Much of the foreshadowing is set when two pre-teens, seemingly of equal social status, are seen hanging out on the curb in the pitch black of night. It only takes a few short moments of conversation to discover that one is a lot nerdier and sheltered than the other, and his friend pounces on the power dynamic. You have to consume some narcotics just to try to be cool in this town. But what really has the community buzzing is a trend of “possession parties” where attendees attempt to contact the dead, inspiring exorcism-like conniptions captured on camera for likes and shares. When you’re not very cool, you have nothing going on in life, or you’re simply tired of everyone giving you the side-eye, winning your friends’ adulation might be worth the risk of demonic entrapment.
It’s refreshing to see a supernatural horror film that doesn’t need to be a period piece or set at a spooky manor. Instead, this feels like a movie belonging to the current generation, tackling head on the detachment that comes with contemporary life. The characters are hesitant at first to participate in the game but eventually see it as a fun bonding exercise. One of the movie’s best moments is seeing Mia’s weirdo reputation embraced, as one character plays up her nickname to hilarious effect, causing the whole room to scintillate with positive vibes, making the peer pressure less about verbal taunts and more about wistful encouragement. These aren’t dumb kids; they just don’t know they’re in a horror movie.
Although, I do wonder where the parents are? One of the few adults we see is Miranda Otto as Jade’s fed up, belligerent mother who’s ready to throw hands even with her own children. She also knows the kids are full of shit but just asks that they’re honest about being full of shit. This is a small town where the teens are brazen and unsupervised, as the adults seem lacking in the skills needed to just talk to their kids in a productive way. A major plot point touches on this theme, as a character withholds crucial information because they don’t think their daughter could handle it. But sheltering isn’t preparing anyone for real life either. There’s not much to do in this town, nor do these characters seem to have aspiring prospects. Thus, these kids indulge themselves in the supernatural to get away from the mundane. There’s strong undertones of drug abuse and alcoholism in the symbolism, as Mia in particular uses these supernatural vices to cope with incomprehensible loss. For a moment, we even suspect the genre may turn on its head, subverting the idea that an encounter with the undead is supposed to be a bad thing.
Where Talk To Me succeeds is that it’s just as interesting in its dramatic moments as it is at its most ghastly. Sure, people are filling the seats to see something scary and weird from the supernatural realm. But this story of a misshapen family drama is just as much a cautionary tale on loss, loyalty, revenge, and the lies we wish were true. Co-directors Danny and Michael Philippou do a fabulous job of giving the flick a flavor that feels true to its Australian roots, while still maintaining a universal relatability – it’s cultural leanings appearing mostly as quirks and dialect, but it isn’t a pre-requisite to understand the narrative. The humor is so bizarre and cringe-inducing, but suitably embarrassing for a group of awkward teenaged mediums.
In addition, Sophia Wilde and Joe Bird give stand out performances, taking the audience on an emotional ringer in a story that could seem like old hat on paper, but feels raw and emotional in their performances. Strong support is supplemented by Zoe Terakes, Alexandra Jensen, Otis Dhanji, and my guy Chris Alosio. It’s a winner that doesn’t overstay its welcome, instead leaving you more intrigued by its premise and the ambiguity of its character motivations once the lights come up. As the credits rolled, I found the urge to dive immediately back into the darkness of this fun horror escapism. Like the best drugs, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.