Sunday 30 July 2023

Hand on your heart: "Talk to Me"

Danny and Michael Philippou are Australian siblings who apprenticed on YouTube and Jennifer Kent's
The Babadook, a recent horror landmark on which they clearly learnt a valuable lesson - that it remains possible to push stock-seeming material into darker, more interesting waters yet. What The Babadook did for the haunted-house movie, the Philippous' debut Talk to Me does for the teen-seance-gone-wrong set-up that has felt like a staple of the multiplex since its inception. One defining feature of these films is their Aussieness: their casual disregard for the usual delicacies, the same DNA-encoded urge that pushed Sia to hit the notes and extremes of emotion she attained in 2014's "Chandelier" (a song that pointedly turns up on the soundtrack here, waved like a national flag). Talk to Me opens with an example of lethally bad behaviour at a generally raucous house party, before introducing us to a set of bratty, beat-up, authentically funny-looking kids who think nothing of abandoning a kangaroo they've injured while driving (told you we were Down Under) and whose idea of a friendly greeting is to thrash one another about the torso with a heavy pillow. One among their number has the Crazy Frog as her ringtone - in 2023! - which suggests she deserves more or less everything that might befall her. Still, gradually, this ragbag claw back our sympathies. They'll need them, given their party game of choice: daring each other to hold a disembodied ceramic hand, liberated from a local medium, which apparently opens the door to an adjacent dimension - and, if you hold on long enough, to full body possession. The more fucked-up their experiments get, the more heroine Mia (Sophie Wilde)'s crowd holler and hoot, and try to record events on their phones; in some way - and the Philippous were surely aware of this - they're a mirror image of the kids watching Talk to Me from the back row of Screen Five.

That should tell you how much the brothers get right - and they do get a lot right here, from domestic detail and relationships to attitudes and vernacular. It's a weird metric to wonder whether a film such as this would hold the attention even without its grabby horror hook, but I'm fairly certain Talk to Me would, because it's not exclusively about the mechanical generation of jumpscares. Instead, it reveals a personality all its own: funny in an early possession montage (flickers of Beetlejuice here: communing with the dead seized upon as a giddying high), touching when Mia makes contact with her late mother (Alexandria Steffensen) and genuinely horrific whenever these kids push too far. From Beetlejuice, we veer into Flatliners territory - though where hackier sensibilities would resort to picking their teens off one by one, the Philippous visit the bulk of their traumas on one half-formed body (that of Joe Bird's hapless Riley), only intensifying the violence. The framing, granted, is a little Heartbreak High: school carparks, teenage bedrooms, suburban homes that appear that much more cramped than they would in any US equivalent. Yet there's something insightful in the deployment of that spooky hand: it is as much an escape from unhappy lives as the alcohol powering that Sia song - another cheap thrill with mortally expensive consequences. The brothers do good work with their performers, especially Wilde, who gets turned every which way by this plot and still has us hoping for the best going into the decisive final movement. (I also enjoyed Miranda Otto as a no-nonsense den mother: informed her daughter's new beau is a committed Christian, she retorts "He's still got a dick".) Demonstrating a surprising maturity, the Philippous know real horror is watching someone you care for self-destruct. What's truly disarming about Talk to Me, though, is that it's also somehow inseparably the work of YouTubers with a fresh understanding of three simple facts: that left to their own devices, and in the absence of any better guidance, teenagers will do the dumbest, most damaging shit imaginable, will delight in doing the dumbest, most damaging shit imaginable, and - even after they've seen how dumb and damaging the shit they're doing can be - will go back to doing the dumbest, most damaging shit imaginable. The flamin' galahs.

Talk to Me is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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