Sundance 2023 Review: TALK TO ME, Creepy Embalmed Hand Leads to Horrific Results
Somewhere around the 30-minute mark in Danny and Michael Philippou’s (YouTube’s RackaRacka duo) feature-length debut, Talk to Me, an act of supernaturally motivated violence unfolds onscreen that will leave even the most jaded, skeptical “seen-it-all” horror fan shaking in their seats and covering their eyes.
It’s a bit of Grand Guignol theatrics that suggests the Philippou brothers intuitively understand the mechanics of not just scaring audiences in the moment and for the remainder of Talk to Me’s running time. Nothing that follows matches that scene in effectiveness, but that’s less a sign of Talk to Me’s deficiencies horror-wise than the near impossibility of topping that scene.
Before we get to that particular conversation starter (or ender), however, Talk to Me introduces Mia (Sophie Wilde), a teen-bordering-on-adulthood suffering from long-term, unresolved trauma connected to the unexpected death of her mother, Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen), two years earlier via an overdose of prescription meds. Her relationship with her grieving father, Max (Marcus Johnson), hasn’t recovered from whatever doubts or unanswered questions she associates with her mother’s death. Keeping the camera focused on Mia’s fragile mental and emotional state, the Philippou brothers shoot Max at a hazy, blurry distance, his voice muted, crowded out by Mia’s interior voice.
With Max a non-viable parental figure, it’s far from surprising that Mia’s gravitated toward the family of her high school best friend, Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade’s younger, impressionable brother, Riley (Joe Bird), and their single mother, Sue (Miranda Otto, underused). It’s not unusual for Mia to spend her nights at Jade’s home, helping with errands, and sleeping over on a pullout couch. She’s even Riley’s go-to option when Jade, preoccupied with her boyfriend, Daniel (Otis Dhanji), forgets to pick up Riley from hanging out in a nearby skate park.
That’s all background and prologue, of course, as Talk to Me centers on the latest viral sensation, a series of Snapchat videos where teens, presumably under the possessions of a spirit conjured by the combination of an embalmed hand of unknown provenance and a ritual of unknown origin, practically jump out of their skins in full view of their friends and more importantly, their cellphones. Few take the videos seriously, but everyone wants to participate, to see and experience it for themselves. And if they don’t want to participate, there’s nothing like peer pressure (teen edition) to change recalcitrant minds.
For Mia, the ritual initially starts as a way to impress Jade and the others with her fearlessness, but once she participates in the ritual and almost stops a few hearts, she starts chasing the addictive adrenaline high that follows. Consequences matter even less once when Mia thinks Rhea has journeyed from the other side to communicate with her, offering her a possible resolution to all the pent-up trauma weighing her down.
Mia’s almost immediate addiction to the ritual leads directly to Talk To Me’s most disturbing scene. While it’s certainly graphic, shocking, and brutal, it’s made all the more unnerving given who’s involved and the Philippou brothers’ willingness to risk alienating the audience on the other side of the screen. Mia’s carelessness reverberates through the remainder of Talk to Me, though what follows, including a loosening of the rules that comes off as muddled and slightly uninspired given what’s preceded it, doesn’t come close to delivering the same nerve-shredding results.
Whatever its second-half deficiencies, Talk to Me benefits from a uniformly strong cast, led by Sophie Wilde as the troubled, ill-fated Mia and Joe Bird as the over-eager, eager-to-please Riley, impressive visuals via Aaron McLisky’s cinematography, Bethany Ryan’s production design, and Geoff Lamb’s editorial skills. Each, in turn, do their part to elevate Talk to Me above and beyond its occasionally faltering script, helping to bring the Philippou brothers’ vision for a new supernatural horror franchise to gnarly, knotty life.
Talk to Me premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Talk to Me
- Danny Philippou
- Michael Philippou
- Bill Hinzman
- Daley Pearson
- Danny Philippou
- Sophie Wilde
- Joe Bird
- Alexandra Jensen