See one horror movie about grief and you’ve seen every horror movie, or so it feels sometimes. Dead children, siblings, parents, spouses — the genre is littered with beloved corpses winking back at us from the other side of oblivion. I’m writing this on day one of virtual Sundance and I’ve already seen three movies of this sort! But we keep coming back to the Babadook Special because it works. It’s what we fear the most. Death for ourselves is one thing, but seeing the people we love the most slip away is something tangible; something that we’ll all experience and then be expected to exist on the other side of. When I was little it was losing my parents that I feared the most of all.
For teenager Mia (newcomer Sophie Wilde), the lead in the Philippou brothers’ unsettling new horror flick Talk To Me (playing Sundance 2023’s Midnight program), it is her Mom that she’s grieving…
Lost in a haze, constantly picking at her chipped tangerine nail-polish… we first meet Mia (after a stabby prologue involving two brothers at a house party that we’ll circle back around to later on in the film) on the two-year anniversary of losing her mom to cancer. She’s half shelled already and her father’s even worse off, so it’s understandable Mia finds some solace and joy in the family of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) — she seems especially close to Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) and mum Sue (Miranda Otto, who makes it easy to understand why just by virtue of giving perfect mom vibes, always). Jade, for her part, is distracted with a boy — a boy that Mia just might be nursing an ancient crush on besides.
So one foreboding half-dead kangaroo in the road later, dark clouds seem intent on haunting Mia’s horizons. Enter the hottest new fad in all the Adelaide suburbs — all the cool kids are sharing videos of themselves tripping black-eyed balls after shaking hands with what’s purported to be a cursed talisman but for all intents and purposes looks like a mummified mannequin’s hand and arm with some scribblings on it. How you play is you lock grip with the thing and you say “Talk to me,” (ooh we have the title!) and suddenly, supposedly, a conduit to the spirit world is opened and sitting across from you in all their spooky, soiled glory. Next you whisper, “I let you in,” and it’s the handshake to Hell, baby.
Basically it’s a twist on Ouija play, where youthful shenanigans brush up against the thing teenagers fear the least — they’re gonna live forever, go those famous last words. These Aussie teens are playing with undead fire, and Mia, in her half-zombified state, is already a little too close to the cold flame for comfort. What starts out as good bad fun quick turns dark, darker, darkest — the drug metaphor’s thankfully only hammered half heavy, but there enough to be clear and precise. Mia’s escaping into oblivion either way, and when the hits inevitably turn into a conversation with her dead Mom all bets are off, as go the wheels — the thin line between the living and the dead is gonna get finger-banged but good.
The director Philippous are well known for their comic horror shorts on YouTube and you see them playing with those conventions here, but only so far as the format itself is a gateway into the unspeakable. These kids are damned first and foremost by their phones — we’re constantly seeing them film things that are determined to break down that distance; to invade their personal spaces. This movie is fun but it isn’t funny — it’s great at jump scares and atmosphere and has fine work from all its young leads (especially Wilde), who convincingly portray a leeching insinuation of evil into their once simple world. It’s deeply reminiscent of It Follows in the way it saps innocence away in the wake of a relentless and unstoppable force, intent on eating them from the inside out. It feels a little, a lot, like growing up.