If contemporary horror is anything to go by, the kids are not alright. The likes of the Unfriended series, It Follows, and Bodies Bodies Bodies have all painted a picture of youth bleak enough to make Edward Munch blush. In the worlds of these films, the uber-prevalence of smartphones, the judgy, panopticon of social media, and even sexual liberation has made adolescence a daunting, anxiety-ridden period rather than one of connectivity and bonding. Talk to Me, the new “it” horror from Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou, is an intriguing entry into this canon that seems to blend elements of the aforementioned films to offer up another grim image of Gen-Z-specific social alienation.
Every successful horror film needs a great conceit and Talk to Me certainly has a novel one. A group of suburban teens and pre-teens get hold of a ceramic hand which allows them to communicate with–and be briefly possessed by –the dead. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of genre fare with similar set-ups (the so-so Ouija series comes to mind), but those efforts have generally aimed for cheap scares with middling results. This time around, however, the activity serves as a fairly transparent metaphor for the peer pressure that comes with viral, online challenges.
In the majority of possession sequences, the invasive, blinding glare of an iPhone camera light will likely make an appearance. This generational specificity, coupled with the lack of any patronizing moralizing, is what gives Talk to Me an edge over its recent peers. Anyone who is at all aware of the potentially fatal consequences of recent crazes like neknominations or the blackout challenge will know the visceral, real-world terror the Phillipou brothers are drawing from. One could also argue the filmmakers are simultaneously taking aim at the worldwide moral panic that arose as a result of the Momo Challenge hoax. Either way, the film is doubtlessly feeding into the very tangible anxieties parents will have over leaving their children in unsupervised settings.
Of the young cast of characters, most attention is paid to Mia (Sophie Wilde), a socially-awkward teenager still reeling from the death of her mother and who is struggling to communicate with a heartbroken father. As a result of this unhappy home life, Mia spends much of her time at the residence of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) in a vain attempt to insert herself into the picture as a pseudo-member of her friend’s family. With the exception of Jade, Mia initially seems to be unable to connect with those her own age. This only starts to change for her when the unruly seances she takes part in at parties affords her some much-desired social currency.
The possession scenes themselves are admirably taut. The Philippous successfully recreate the maniacal, unpredictable energy present in a space inhabited by unruly kids. Crucially, these uproarious meet-ups feel as if we are watching actual teenagers “hanging out” with reckless abandon. Possessions are shot with a frantic verve. Not unlike how a rubber-necking adolescent might film the event through their phone, the handheld camera work haphazardly focuses on the action with frenetic fixation. The apparent ‘high’ the teens get from the experience unmistakably also mirrors that which you might get from an illicit narcotic.
As expected, there is a critical rule involved. You can only allow the spirit to inhabit the body for 90 seconds before the typical dire consequences arrive. If you’ve ever seen a film before, you’ll know that the time limit will be exceeded in no time. In the standout moment in which this occurs, the reason provided is believable, as is the emotional anguish which helps cause the serious error of judgment. The scene in question begins as sincerely, uncomfortably sad, before devolving into a chaotic bout of blood-curling self harm and then concluding with a shell-shocked Mia. It’s an emotional whiplash and probably the strongest section of horror cinema this year.
If there is a weaker portion of Talk To Me, it’s probably in its final third. Primary focus shifts to our lead and pretty much no one else. As Mia begins to see spirits–or hallucinations depending on your interpretation–outside the ritual game, her mental state starts to deteriorate. Much of this denouement isn’t so much horrifying as punishingly bleak. The social commentary and entertaining comradery of the first half makes way for more bog standard, bitterly depressing familial drama. Many horror films these days are allegories for grief, but why does that mean all of them have to be?
There is, however, no doubting the commitment of Sophia Wilde’s performance. She is put through the ringer as Mia as Wilde meets the emotional range required and then some. While some issues persist with Talk to Me’s final stretch, there is no doubting the satisfying suckerpunch that is the concluding image. It also begs the question: If we could communicate with spirits, why are we so certain their intentions are good?