I am so deeply unsettled. As is customary with an A24 film, there is no hiding from the absolute horror of what is to come. The preamble to Talk to Me gives a sense of the consequences of actions we are yet to see. We meet teenagers Mia (Sophie Wilde) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and the latter’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) who all sneak out to a house party.
Enter a cursed ceramic disembodied hand that enables people to see and interact with spirits with the utterance of a simple phrase, “Talk to me”. The especially emboldened could go a step further and command, “I let you in” which grants the spirit access to the user.
Combine this with the appeal of the supernatural on social media and you have the perfect recipe for a teenage looking to finally feel the spotlight on them. And perhaps, a little companionship along the way.
Mia, estranged from her father after her mother’s mysterious death, finds solace with her friend’s family. But using the creepy relic is going to help her impress their slightly apathetic classmates Hayley (Zoey Tarakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio) and Mia’s ex Daniel (Otis Dhanji). Soon, this relic leads to the teenagers feeling an almost euphoric high from using it. However, it’s obvious that things will only go downhill from here.
A possessed Mia chanting 'Run, run, run, run', partially breaking the fourth wall, is bone-chilling.
As you’re horrified by the characters gasping for air on screen as their bodies contort, their friends laugh and record. The film’s real horror comes from makers Danny and Michael Philippou’s decision to let the characters be their age.
There is a lot of familiarity in Talk to Me: pupils that expand into pitch black orbs, sudden jump scares, violence and gore, and an unnerving stifling grief. The suffocation felt in Hereditary from a disjointed family with anger and resentment bubbling to the surface is replaced here with the need to be seen and understood; the need for comfort and warmth.
Mia is trying to deal with the grief of her past and grasping at the promise of a better, less lonely future and this desperation makes her cling to a relic that only further separates her from reality.
There are particularly disheartening parts in the film that make you hope it all ends well even as every scene drives home the feeling that it might not.
For instance, as Lady Macbeth says, ‘no amount of washing will cleanse her hands’. It is perhaps this sense of guilt and helplessness that shrouds a character as they wash their bloodied hands in a sink; their expression tight with despair. Then there is the fact that all aspects of supernatural ritual seem more like pleas for affection and understanding than incantations.
The intimate act of holding a hand or the softness of phrases like ‘Talk to me’ and ‘I let you in’ are twisted in this dark horror. The viewers’ hearts would go out for Mia, Jade, and Riley, and the latter’s mother Sue (Miranda Otto).
Wilde finds the careful balance between heartbreaking and terrifying for her character. One is afraid for her not just because she is struggling but also because the supernatural elements in question are unreliable. But then, what proves the veracity of the claims made by the real life people around her?
Every actor carries their weight in the film. The teenagers go from euphoric to visibly afraid in the matter of seconds and this panicked state is captured expertly by the actors on screen. Joe Bird as Riley, a young boy at the age where peer pressure is the direct gateway to ‘cool’ and things are still extremely confusing and terrifying is particularly effective.
The camerawork by Aaron McLisky is precisely what this film needs. The jerks are all intentional and so is the fluctuating distance between viewer and character. Details, even those apparent to the viewer, are gradually peeled away to add to the scare.
There are times when it feels like the film is holding its cards too close to the chest – some characters staring into the abyss need a better payoff, sometimes it’s a scene that is stretched too thin to have the desired effect.
Talk to Me feels like a greater feat of ingenuity and understanding of the subject than it is a cinematic experience. But, if it's a scare you're looking for, you won't leave disappointed.