Premiering your debut film at Sundance, watching it become one of the buzziest films of the festival, and then having it purchased in an intense bidding war by indie distributor darling A24 sounds like a career trajectory of fiction. That is, however, exactly what has happened for twins Danny and Michael Philippou. Originally hailing from Adelaide, their horror YouTube channel RackaRacka has garnered over 2 billion views and legions of fans, and their excellent feature film debut 'Talk to Me' will no doubt see their popularity deservedly grow even more.
When we meet our 17-year-old protagonist Mia (Sophie Wilde, 'The Portable Door'), it's the anniversary of her mother's death. The home she shares with her father, Max (Marcus Johnson, 'The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee') is a broken one of awkward silences, and so Mia spends most of her time with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen, 'Beat') and Jade's 14-year-old brother Riley (Joe Bird, 'Rabbit'). With their mother Sue (Miranda Otto, 'Downhill') working night shifts, Mia persuades Jade to go to a party partaking in a new viral online trend. Instead of alcohol, drugs or sex being the main attraction, the guests hold a psychic's embalmed hand, light a candle, and say "Talk to me" to become possessed by a supernatural spirit.
SWITCH: 'TALK TO ME' TRAILER 2
While the outcome of the ritual looks less than pleasant – eyes glassing over, convulsions, the participants looking like they're suffocating – they come out the other side describing the experience as a high. With this, 'Talk to Me' taps into universally understood truths of bored teenagers seeking thrills through stupid means, but Mia's growing fascination with the ritual morphs into an obsession with closure around her mother's passing. There are, of course, rules around the ritual; the participant cannot hold the hand for more than 90 seconds and the candle must be snuffed out to ensure the bridge is closed and that the supernatural inhabitant doesn't accidentally stay. Of course, this being a horror movie, we know that this 90-second time limit is going to be inevitably breached, either through accident or sheer teenage stupidity.
Despite 'Talk to Me' being their first feature-length project, the Philippou brothers prove to be adept in carefully calculated directing. The film clocks in at a brief 95 minutes yet takes its time building up to its big moments, a surprising tactic from directors who have grown up on short-form content creation which guarantees instant connection and gratification. This also helps to further rationalise why Riley tags along to these parties and eventually pleads with Mia to let him hold the hand; the Philippou brothers focus so much on capturing the monotony of these kids' lives, we know that it's only a matter of time before their thrill-seeking becomes life-threatening.
The film clocks in at a brief 95 minutes yet takes its time building up to its big moments, a surprising tactic from directors who have grown up on short-form content creation which guarantees instant connection and gratification.
What also surprised me is just how funny 'Talk to Me' is; a common gripe I have with Australian cinema is unnecessary genre mish-mashing, its weaker entries unable to figure out what tone they want to strike and oft leaning into unnecessary and ill-fitting humour. Here, however, the jokes serve to further prove just how little these teens understand the danger of the forces they are playing with. This also taps into clear inspiration from horror-comedy legend Sam Raimi, particularly in fast-paced sequences of the teens all taking turns with the hand. At first, the spirits are horny and harmless, but rapidly become more cruel. The fact that you're laughing along the whole time just makes waiting for the other shoe to drop all the more entertaining and nerve-wracking.
Leaving some of the mythology around the hand obscure makes sense; after all, Mia and her friends are too busy having fun to make sure they've got all their contingencies mapped out should a supernatural visitor want to stay. However, by leaving some questions unanswered - who the spirits are, whether they have an agenda during their visit, if they can transfer to those who break the 90-second rule and so on - some of the plot twists in the film's third act become unclear and their impact is blunted. Furthermore, the Philippou brothers' background in viral video-making gives them an opportunity to comment on its attention-seeking nature; unfortunately, this doesn't go beyond Mia's friends watching her possession through their phone cameras (which, additionally, would've been a cool way to frame some of these scenes, but the film doesn't go for it). Of course, these flaws are relatively minor in the face of this being a debut feature, but they are noticeable nonetheless.
The refusal to play into routine jump-scare fare, effective sound design and a killer final 30 seconds make 'Talk to Me' an audacious horror debut. The Philippou brothers are a welcome new voice in the Australian film industry, and I cannot wait to see where their twisted tendencies take them next.