Premiering at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival, the feature directorial debut of twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou finally had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, recently opening in theaters to wide acclaim, boasting a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. Centered around a group of teens in over their heads after an occult game goes wrong, there’s a lot to like about this movie. The cinematography is slick, the acting is fantastic, and as a horror film it does what it needs to for viewers to stay on the edge of their seats—but all this great work is tainted by the film’s writing. The Philippou brothers gesture toward themes of grief, family, friendship and belonging in the digital age, yet seem incapable of really delving into such ideas. Despite some serious shortcomings, we’re given a scary, energetic, fun watch that rockets audiences toward an apocalyptic ending.
Mia’s just lost her mother, and is struggling to fit in with a new group of friends, until she volunteers to play a game where one allows themselves to be possessed. The connection is made by holding a hand that’s supposedly been severed from a long-dead medium. I think Sophie Wilde did all she could with this role. Balancing Mia’s grief with the angst one expects in a teen reckoning with tragedy, she displays a great range and commitment with each scene; it’s a shame her character’s written so shallowly, relying more on tropes and easy emotional plays than really getting to the core of Mia as a person. The supporting cast is just as well-acted, yet frustratingly underwritten. I don’t think films necessarily have to say something, but I do think this one wants to, it just doesn’t know how. The most accessible social commentary one can follow is the Philippou brothers’ scolding of cellphone culture. Characters are often either humiliated or maimed as partygoers watch with phones recording. This isn’t a new, or even interesting, thing to say in 2023. The rest seems muddled, and makes plot twists lose their gravity. When things inevitably go wrong with the game, I couldn’t help feeling like the script relied more on the film’s solid practical effects than the story itself.
The gore here is fantastic, and it makes the great acting that much more visceral. If nothing else, I can say the visuals in this film are literally and figuratively haunting, even hard to watch at times (in the best of ways). Aaron McLisky’s cinematography is slick without being cold or over calculated. The violence in the film is intense and all the pans, zooms and dolly shots present it in a frank, unflinching way that sticks with you long after credits roll. There was some nice, but predictable, playing with the depth of field in order to place us even deeper in Mia’s mind. The lighting is fairly naturalistic and honestly didn’t do much for me with the exception of a really breathtaking ending scene. I noticed a lot of shifting from warm to cold tones, maybe too many, verging on a kind of heavy handedness. It’s not perfect, but the cuts by editor Geoff Lamb set a lightning quick pace that, when combined with really good sound mixing and a great soundtrack, keeps us engaged for every second of its 95-minute runtime.
As far as the modern landscape of horror is concerned, this one is definitely a cut above the rest, and I think that’s what makes me so irritated with it. My complaint here is the same as with Smile (2022): the potential is there, but the ideas seem half-baked, at times completely unformed. That being said, it’s obvious the Philippou brothers are trying to leave their YouTube prankster days behind, and this is certainly a great first step. I’m excited to see their next film, and definitely recommend you watch Talk to Me in a theater near you. To me, horror is just more effective in a movie theater. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!