The Most A24 Film That Has Ever A24’d: An Alternate Take on ‘Talk to Me’

Posted in Theatrical by - July 28, 2023
The Most A24 Film That Has Ever A24’d: An Alternate Take on ‘Talk to Me’

“If you take even one hit of weed, the devil will take your soul forever.”

Letterboxd user, chrishealy

I’m not an A24 fan, nor am I an A24 anti-fan; I’m more A24 agonistic than anything else. Thus, I have little time for the belief that A24 is the epitome of the failures of modern cinema. I also have little time for “wah, elevated horror” whinging. People have been having these same conversations since the 80s, just with the typified nouns changed. People HATED “torture porn” when Martyrs was a thing and Saw began moving into the “wait, what Roman numeral is VII again” phase of its unceasing journey. It’s ostensibly the same thing as before, except now the typical horror film probably features trauma and/or mental health allegories in a piece that’s more moody than extreme.

This was all until I saw Talk to Me, the feature debut of the Philippou brothers Danny and Michael (aka YouTubers RackaRacka). This is either the most A24 film that ever A24’d, or the most elevated horror film of all time. You can take your pick regarding which one seems more annoying to you. Talk to Me is everything that the aforementioned anti-fans have been claiming all horror movies are for the last few years. Maybe I’ve finally seen through the looking glass.

Or maybe Talk to Me is just stupid, so, so stupid. The film stars Sophie Wilde as Mia, a tortured soul suffering from recent loss. In this case it’s her mother, who overdosed on sleeping pills. Mia is suffering, but has a pair of friends in the form of bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her younger brother, Riley (Joe Bird). The former likes Mia, but the latter adores her, viewing her as the cool older sister that he wishes he had. The other kids are less hot on Mia, evidenced by conversations that Jade has with “cool girl” Hayley (Zoe Terakes) about how Mia is more than a bit weird.

Mia is more than a bit weird, but in an attempt to prove otherwise she jumps at the first chance to try out the latest viral sensation: a creepy looking hand which offers otherworldly experiences. Simply say “talk to me” and you’ll see the dead. Follow that up with “I let you in,” and you’ll have an out of body experience. When Mia does so, her friends immediately start filming her trip. The intensity of her experience – five people have to pry the hand from Mia’s grasp – brings her a modicum of street cred.

The biggest issue with Talk to Me is in terms of the film’s unexplored themes. There’re three “lanes” that the Philippou’s set up for themselves – two are thematic; one is technical. As an allegory, the film acts as a weak commentary on drug use. Jade’s mother, Sue (Miranda Otto), threatens Mia with banishment should she consume any drugs on Sue’s premises. Mia’s response? A protestive “I’ve only done weed once,” which suggests that maybe, just maybe, there might be some self-medicating at play (she’s definitely done “weed” more than once).

When Mia first uses the hand, she later describes the event to Riley as mystical, an opportunity to feel everything. This seems to be deliberately designed to mimic a drug experience. A character comments that “eventually, the spirits leave your system over time,” a throwaway line that mimics the language of a detox. Latter montages with the hand suggest that it’s just a harmless party drug, what can be the harm?

The harm comes in the form of what happens when Riley experiences the hand. Riley begs and pleads to have a hit; Jade refuses. But when she leaves the room Mia caves, offering him fifty seconds in the afterlife. Unfortunately, things go awry when Riley becomes possessed by the ghost of Mia’s mother, which results in a brutal sequence that I shan’t describe. Really, you need to experience it for yourself. If you’re following the drug allegory, this is the “overdose/bad trip offered to someone who wasn’t ready.”

The frustrating thing about this film is that it works in spurts. The lane that the Phillippou’s should stick to is that of a fun, slick genre thriller. There’re three or four scenes that are genuinely horrifying. The real MVP performance here is Joe Bird as Riley, Jade’s younger brother. Bird carries most of the film’s horror on his shoulders, as the role demands a—decidedly upsetting—physicality. Two of those scenes involve him. Moreover, the Philippou’s display some impressive technical skills which offer up some hope for where they want to go as filmmakers wants to go. My favourite sequence of the film is a long take that opens the film. Very few YouTubers could pull that off, which gives me hope that they might be able to figure how to stick the landing, if they can just figure out the thematic messaging a bit.

Unfortunately, Talk to Me does not stick the landing. If the first lane Talk to Me straddles is that of a (poor) anti-drug use PSA allegory, and the second is the fun genre thriller, the third is a grief play. In the film, Mia is hurting. Sophie Wilde is the other great performance in this film, as she skillfully embodies an individual who’s struggling to seem normal, but she isn’t. It’s a performance that feels like how a teen would respond to this situation. No, she’s not okay; but you can sure as hell bet she’s going to say that “she’s great actually.”

As the film goes on, Mia begins to see more and more visions of her dead mother. Her grief becomes palpable, but her character’s motivations start to flag. In fact, this is a large problem that the Philippous have. If I can sum up the problems I have with Talk to Me in one sentence, it would be this: they’re good filmmakers, but their writing belies an immaturity that is understandable considering their background, but unfortunate.

It’s not even that I think this is a film that offers polarizing reactions. Most of the people who see this are going to be enamoured with it, the inevitable C- CinemaScore be damned. But there’s a frustration that’s paramount to my experiences with this film. Simply put, it just should be better. This is best exemplified in the film’s ending, which is such a silly cop out, it brings to mind Blumhouse classics such as Truth or Dare. Six years ago, everyone hated that. Times change I guess.

I find most of the debates around modern horror gauche. Because in the wise parlance of the late, great George Romero, great horror films upset the apple cart. The aesthetics they choose don’t really matter if they can upset that apple cart in order to ask us what makes us human. A good movie can put you on a roller coast for a couple of hours. It does this even if you recognize that you’ll probably forget it in a bit. A great film forces you to think about you and your place in this world. A moody pseudo-horror drama has a chance to force me to do that. Same goes for an Eli Roth film. Who the hell cares what the label on the credits is?

In Talk to Me, the Philippou’s don’t upset the apple cart so much as they violently shake it and say “haha, gotcha mate,” at the end. At that’s probably fine for a film which wants to be a fun horror film. But I don’t quite know if the film just wants to be a fun horror film. In another lifetime, it’d be a cinematic rendition of one of those “if you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot” commercials. You can’t have it both ways, which is really what the A24 anti-fans have rallied against for years. Saint Maud is about something though. Hereditary is about something until Ari Aster loses it in the 3rd act. This? This isn’t about anything at the end of the day.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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