Sundance 2023 review: Talk to Me (Michael & Danny Philippou)

“This is why Michael and Danny Philippou’s Talk to Me works; it understands the time in which it was produced and the moment in which its characters exist.”

Often people talk about re-evaluating films that weren’t well-received at the time of their release, even booed at a film festival, only to become classics a few years later. On a personal level, I think about my first time at a film festival and how I absolutely hated Hong Sang-soo’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, only to come around after seeing Our Sunhi in a different moment of my life. Perhaps I was too young back then. Perhaps I wasn’t interested in what Hong had to say, but Our Sunhi spoke to me deeply. And that changed my perception of the director as a whole.

So, still on this matter, what happens when we talk about a genre and not about a specific work of art or an artist? If we think about literature, for example, it is undeniable that there’s a demand to reconsider and question what we think to be the literary canon; the very fact that we talk about queer literature, about an African American literature, or about a postcolonial reading of novels showcases this. Sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels were considered for so long to be lesser genres and are now being completely re-evaluated. Perhaps a good example in cinema is animation and what I see as a very Western tendency to perceive it as something for kids only; look at how Guillermo del Toro’s campaign for Pinocchio was centered around that, to end up being nominated only for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars. An award that will probably be presented by a kid.

But this text is about another genre being re-evaluated, horror, and how the way we talk about it has changed because society has as well. From the suburban panic that influenced so many directors and their slasher films in the ’70s like John Carpenter’s Halloween, to the birth of a generation obsessed with image and always having a camera at hand; from those found-footage movies like Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project or Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi, to the horrors of existence and metaphors for trauma of films such as Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, for example. Thus, audiences change, films change, critics change and understanding the process of changing might be the key to make an interesting film. Especially when it comes to horror, for if we are not the same, neither are the things that scare us. This is why Michael and Danny Philippou’s Talk to Me works; it understands the time in which it was produced and the moment in which its characters exist.

Talk to Me has a simple premise. A sculpture in the shape of a hand allows the ones who touch it to see spirits, and by simply saying “I let you in” that person could experience a possession. It is 2023 though, and there is not a single human experience that cannot be turned into content. Right from the opening scene in which a possessed teenager tries to kill his brother and then kills himself as the people around them record everything with their cellphones, to a long séance scene in which several people take turns to be possessed, to be entertained, and generate content. Instead of doubt, fear, and tension, these kids know that the sculpture works, that they will face dead people, but that it will end up on their Instagram profiles anyway.

However, social media is not the only thing that Talk to Me gets right. Circling back to my early comments about the perception of things and how it changes, horror viewing changed because, among many reasons, horrible things are happening around us all the time. And now we consume faster and faster news cycles. We are connected all the time. So it’s not that bad things are a novelty but that we are hyper-focused on the news. Moreover, the virtualization of daily life affects our ability to feel empathetic towards one another. In this sense, Talk to Me‘s ghosts are like these virtual bodies. Bored kids who have barely any place to socialize other than social media, gathered to get drunk, and get high on invoking dead people to take over their bodies. Dead people who are eternally in pain, stuck in some kind of limbo. The key point here is that they know about the pain of the other but in an age of numbness, anything goes for a cheap thrill.

It is in this context that we follow the story of Mia (Sophie Wilde), who after the suicide of her mother cannot stand to be near her father and his grief. A behavior that pushes her closer to the siblings Jada (Alexandra Jensen) and Riley (Joe Bird), to find something normal and untouched by the sorrow her father reminds her of. An intricate bond is formed between a depressed Mia and a still innocent Riley who, in one of the possession sequences, draws the dead towards him precisely because of that. They want him, and they will take him, for he is still pure and doesn’t know the horrors of death.

In a sense, Talk to Me is about empathy and one’s (in)ability to feel it. After the suicide sequence that opens the film, for example, Riley and Mia riding back home find a suffering deer on the road. They know that the merciful course is to put it out of its misery, but they simply decide to leave it there and wait for another driver to pass by and do the right thing. And it is to this animal that Mia’s thoughts return every time she witnesses the toll that the possession is taking on Riley’s body.

This is a crucial turn because she is close to him and this is deeply connected to how she feels; she cares about him. She feels empathetic towards him, not towards the others, living or dead. Riley is a real person for her unlike the people she saw being possessed on social media. At its conclusion Talk to Me seems to ask a new question: shouldn’t the ones observing the pain of others feel something and be in agony themselves? Does a mercy killing truly exist, and who really needs it?