"Talk to Me:" A24's New Pride and Joy
Distributor and indie darling studio A24 is in an extremely unique position- rather than depending on big-budget marketing campaigns or A-list actors and directors to fill seats, the only thing they seem to need to pull a crowd is their mark of approval. One specific genre in which they’ve developed a cult following is horror, and given their track record (Hereditary, X, The VVitch, and more), a new A24 horror release is bound to get attention. In the case of Talk To Me, the studio’s latest, the attention is undoubtedly deserved.
Talk To Me is Australian filmmaker duo Danny and Michael Phillippou’s feature-length directorial debut (after an established career on YouTube as RackaRacka, producing comedy and horror content.) I had the pleasure of attending one of the film’s premiere events at San Diego Comic Con (A24’s first outing at arguably the world’s biggest pop culture convention) with the directors in attendance. Because of their presence in the room, I resisted the temptation to shut my eyes during the film’s most terrifying parts- which ended up being entirely worth it. The Phillippou’s have accomplished something all horror aspires to: the perfect combination of effective scares and compelling story that keeps you watching.
The film, following a gory cold open about the previous owner of the possessed hand the story revolves around, focuses on the character of Mia: a teenager grieving her mother’s accidental (or not) death 2 years prior. To avoid dealing with her grief at home, she has immersed herself in her best friend Jade’s family, becoming particularly close with her little brother, Riley. Still a typical teen in spite of everything, Mia urges Jade to go check out a party at which the aforementioned hand (which has gone viral for its drug like effect) will be present. Riley, after some pleading, tags along. Mia, desperate to belong amidst Jade’s friends, goes first and has a vision of a haunting corpse while holding the hand, terrifying Riley. The after-effects, however, are exactly as described, and the trio and their friends have a wild night- though Riley suffers from nightmares afterward. The game continues the next night, when Riley overcomes his fear and asks to use the hand. But instead of seeing just any corpse, he sees and channels a spirit that looks like Mia’s deceased mother. Mia, desperate to see her mom, forces Riley to keep holding the hand- until Riley, like the man in the cold opening, attempts to kill himself and in the process injures himself badly enough to wind up comatose. But Mia, desperate for answers about her mom’s suspicious death, keeps turning back to the hand.
The plot of the film is a clear reflection on the cycle of grief and the dark places it can drive one to. As Mia chases what is left of her mother, she loses both her father and the chosen family she has remaining in Jade and Riley. The hand, which has substance like effects on all of the participants in the game, winds up becoming an addiction to Mia- and while she can very clearly see the suffering corpses on the other side, she cannot stop herself from entering their world. As I watched this film, I constantly wondered to myself how it could possibly have a conclusive ending. The answer completely subverted my expectations- the Phillippou brothers instead took the risk of allowing the film to end on a shocking yet ultimately satisfying cliffhanger. Of course, since my viewing of the film, a sequel, Talk 2 Me, has been announced.
Mia’s desperation and grief lead her to push away and harm characters we come to care about, and Sophie Wilde’s performance was nuanced and honest enough that despite all of her mistakes, we keep on rooting for her. She absolutely carries the film and her performance is responsible for a morally gray protagonist who is still deeply compelling against all odds. Joe Bird’s performance as Riley also has stuck with me- he is deeply believable in his role as a little brother who is just too young to be best friends with his sister, and seems a little lost in his own world- of course, making him more vulnerable to the peer pressure and danger of the hand. Both actors- and the entire ensemble- deliver great performances and I am incredibly glad that the entirely Australian ensemble has gained global attention.
Of course, this is a horror movie, so let’s get into the horror of it all. This film, especially Riley’s sequences, is blatantly gory- so if you can’t tolerate eye gore, body horror, or self-harm, this film is probably not for you. But the scares, largely done practically, are terrifying and often well-earned with a satisfying build up. There are no cheap jump-scares to be found here, and as a horror fan, I was very satisfied (and in equal measure terrified) with this film.
I do have my issues with Talk To Me- specifically the lack of exploration in regards to the hand’s origin and workings. We hear a bit of urban legends about why the hand does what it does and we see in the cold open that it has driven others to madness, but I would have enjoyed hearing more about its lore. Mia comes to several conclusions about how to reach Riley and others with the hand, and I believe these instances could have been a moment in which she pursued more of the hand’s history rather than eureka moments. Still, I suppose they had to leave something for the sequel (and alleged prequel) that is soon to come. In spite of that, I do wish we had gotten just a little more and that the directors hadn’t taken the gamble on getting the sequel to explore that.
Overall, Talk To Me was one of my favorite horror releases of the year- and one that earned that spot unexpectedly. I am not usually impressed with films about mysterious objects (Ouija, Annabelle, etc) because I find the characters who engage with them to be too frustrating- why even get near that creepy object in the first place? The premises almost always depend too much on the suspension of my disbelief. But through the lens of teen drug culture, grief, and addiction, I did not feel repelled by the characters’ obsessions with the hand. (Although when I was given the chance at the afterparty, I absolutely did not talk to the hand.)