March 24, 2023

The facilitator of all that misery is the severed hand of a deceased medium that’s being passed around high schools like an urban legend. Apparently a friend of Mia’s procured the body part from another spooked lad who claimed he didn’t need it anymore. The hand is a conductor between the living and the dead, and when you hold it, the invisible barrier between these worlds is broken. When someone says “talk to me” while shaking the extremity, an often ghoulish visage becomes visible to only the speaker’s eyes. And when that same person says “I let you in,” well, things get worse…

Mia is neither Goth nor into the occult. In fact, she’s mostly just trying to get by after her mother died by suicide. She prefers to spend her days now as the surrogate daughter of Riley’s slightly happier family. The latter is doted on by a caring if often distracted single mother, Sue (Miranda Otto), as well as his older sister Jade (Alexandra Jensen). None of them speak of their anxieties or paranoia, but this group is noticeably wounded, which is why they’re eager for a laugh with mates on the weekends. And when one of those friends vouches for games with severed hands and demonic entities, it certainly sounds livelier than another night brooding over the parents who aren’t here.

The strength of the Philippou brothers’ direction is in how measured it seems. Despite cutting their teeth on a website who’s algorithm rewards instant gratification, the filmmakers eschew the kind of cheap jolts or campfire pacing the pulpy material would seem to suggest. Instead there’s a relentless mundanity about Mia and Riley’s home lives that makes the idea of macabre seances seem exciting. The communions also provide a showcase for the splashier side of the filmmakers’ craft.

By allowing the supernatural element of the film to slowly infest the rest of the picture, the effect is not unlike watching rot encroach from the fringes of the frame for about 90 minutes. It’s also akin to how addiction can slowly submerge an individual you know under the darkest shadow. The otherworldly consequences that Mia and Riley face manifest like mental illness, only with the heightened depravity of it taking on the shape of a child cackling as he laps at a pool of his own blood. The possession scenes are disturbing not because of smash-cut editing or contortionist acrobatics, but due to the perverse feeling of awful, irreversible corruption is taking root. Wilde and especially Bird are also unsparing at inhabiting these descents.

It is easy to see why the film appealed to A24, the indie studio that also picked up Robert Eggers’ The Witch at Sundance and took Ari Aster’s Hereditary to SXSW. Talk to Me refreshes (or, sigh, “elevates”) well worn horror concepts and reveals emerging new talent in the genre. However, we suspect the more outwardly pulpy sensibility and setup of Talk to Me will make it an especially potent cocktail for modern young audiences who can recognize timeless insecurities in this distinctly current representation of stupid games and the prizes they engender. It also culminates with a brutal ending that’s the best this genre has seen so far in the 2020s. You can’t help but let it in.

Talk to Me premiered at SXSW on March 10 and opens in the U.S. on July 28.

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