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PALM BEFORE THE STORM
Talk to Me (15)
Starring: Sophie Wilde, Miranda Otto, Joe Bird
Review: RJ Bland
Teenagers eh? They never learn. You can implore and instruct and explain to them the risks associated with a whole host of things that they may be exposed to. Taking drugs, accepting drinks or lifts from strangers, texting and driving, conspiracy theories. But teens will be teens at the end of the day. That rebellious streak is almost in-built. But you'd think that even the most wayward kid would show a bit of bloody respect when it comes to contacting the dead. They've had decades of film education to fall back on here. Countless movies that teach us that no good can come from meddling with the spirit realm. If Regan had just thrown that bloody ouija board out, she'd have had a regular childhood, let's face it. But it's 2023 and as we know, these young ruffians have no respect for what's come before. They certainly don't in Talk to Me, the debut feature of young Australian film-making duo Danny and Michael Philippou. A film where raising the dead and possession are deemed perfect 'content' for viral internet videos...
Talk to Me sets its stall out early with a particularly shocking sequence set during a thronging Adelaide house party. The climax of this intro leaves us in no doubt as to the tone and level of violence that will inevitably follow. Flash forward an unspecified amount of time and we meet 17 year old Mia (Sophie Wilde), who is still suffering the mental scars on the two year anniversary of her mum's mysterious premature death. She is barely on speaking terms with her father and instead seeks solace in her best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and Jade's younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) and mother (Miranda Otto). One night, whilst Jade is busy whatsapping her boyfriend, Mia suggests that they head out to a party that a couple of mutual friends (well, sort of) are hosting. There will be drinking and drugs and protracted handshakes and fit-bumps but Mia isn't really interested in this. You see, as she demonstrates to Jade via a video on her phone, at these gatherings, a séance is held where a volunteer grips a creepy embalmed hand and is then briefly possessed by a spirit. Jade thinks it's bullshit, but relents because Mia is so damn desperate to go – plus her boyfriend will be there too. Jade's younger brother Riley tags along too. At the party, Mia is the first volunteer. Whilst a dozen or so teens record with their phones, she grips the hand and as instructed, says 'talk to me'. It's all pretty much downhill from there!
Several early reviews of Talk to Me compared it to a film released nearly a decade before; It Follows. Whilst Talk to Me will probably not be considered a modern classic in the same way that David Robert Mitchell's smash hit is, there are solid grounds for making the comparison. Both are helmed by inexperienced film-makers (in terms of feature film-making at least) and there's always a thrill in seeing something that makes waves when it is from a director(s) that we're not familiar with (see Robert Eggers and Ari Aster). Both films were roaring successes on the festival circuit and despite garnering a certain amount of hype, have managed to largely meet and surpass audience and critic expectations.
Like It Follows, the Phillipou brothers' debut also immerses us in the world of its youthful protagonists. There are barely any adults here, aside from the ever impressive Miranda Otto. The boring logical security offered by grown ups is not accessible and our vulnerable leads are forced to confront their demons without their assistance. These teens may be flawed and certainly annoying at times. But not in a grating I Know What You Did Last Summer (2022) kind of way. These peeps are fundamentally decent, even if they make some daft decisions but most importantly, they are believable. Which makes investing in them so much easier when the supernatural shit hits the fan. Part of this is down to smart writing but vitally we have a superior cast who navigate the traumatic plot with style. Sophie Wilde may rightfully steal the show but the supporting cast are all excellent too.
But perhaps most importantly, Talk to Me delivers when it comes to the horror and that is why this film is ultimately being talked about. Like It Follows, it favours subtle dread and atmosphere rather than delivering jack-in-the-box jump scares. However this slow burn doesn't fizzle out, it occasionally explodes with some truly wince-inducing violence and a smattering of startling images that are difficult to shake off. The Phillipous also make the astute decision to keep the threat as cryptic as possible. They give us clear rules and parameters to operate within yet still manage to keep us guessing as to where the next danger will come from. Thankfully, we don't delve too much into the history of this cursed embalmed hand either, which makes the whole thing that little bit more chilling.
The ending may feel a little rushed to some (and perhaps a little predictable to others) but the last few seconds are undoubtedly satisfying. And whilst It Follows is a one and done, Talk to Me has the potential to run and run. If a sequel isn't announced within the next few months, we'd be surprised. And we'd be first in line to see it too.
Talk to Me is an unnerving and at times gruelling feature debut from two directors with a big future. The hype won't help it but it's still one of the best horror films released this year.
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