Film Review: “Talk to Me” — Hand of Glory

By Peg Aloi

Despite the lack of background or explanation for the occult item at the center of Talk to Me, I found it relatively easy to suspend my disbelief and become caught up in the story’s momentum.

Talk to Me, directed by Danny and Michael Philippou. Screening at Somerville Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and AMC Assembly Row.

Mia (Sophie Wilde) hand in hand with trouble in Talk to Me. Photo: Matthew Thorne / A24

The team (Danny and Michael Phillippou) behind the gruesome, suspenseful, and terrifying Talk to Me has crafted a contemporary horror classic that’s sure to be an influence on the genre going forward. Drawing on the ubiquitous subgenre of teenagers dabbling in the occult, this Australian film imbues the usual tale of pseudo-science gone wrong with personal trauma and intimate family connections. The opening scene presents a raucous teen party in progress. Cole (Ari McCarthy) arrives, distressed to find his younger brother locked in a bedroom while people stand around drinking beer. They waiting, somewhat expectantly, for something to happen. There are glimpses of videos on people’s phones showing distorted faces with shadowy eyes and hugely dilated pupils, mouths stretched open in grimaces and groans. It looks as if people are laughing as they share the same deep fake TikTok video among themselves. Cole breaks down the bedroom door to find his brother, Duckett (Sunny Johnson), sitting and staring at the wall. It’s not clear (yet) how these happenings are connected. The two brothers have a physical confrontation and Duckett runs out of the bedroom and Cole screams at the party guests to put their phones away. Suddenly, Duckett lashes out violently and mayhem ensues.

The movie then focuses on two best friends, Mia (Sophie Wilde) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen). Mia once dated Jade’s current boyfriend Daniel, and teases her about it. Jade’s kid brother Riley (Joe Bird) hangs out with the pair: he and Mia are close. Riley begs to come along as the girls hatch a plan to sneak out to a party. Jade’s mother Sue (Miranda Otto) isn’t fooled at their attempts at subterfuge and cautions them to be careful. (Otto is terrific as a savvy but caring mom who’s seen it all). Sue treats Mia like a member of the family because the young woman lost her mother fairly recently to an accidental death. In fact, it’s the “Day of Remembrance” for Mia’s mom and she’d rather spend it with her friend and surrogate family than with her own father. It’s a by-now-familiar trope of recent grief, a device that puts characters into an unusually vulnerable state. But Mia is no victim: she is strong, compassionate, and trying to hold it together while being a good friend.

At the forbidden party, Mia and Jade are being begged by others to “play the game.” The vibe is similar to the party in the opening scene, but we don’t know yet if that took place before or after. Joss (Chris Alosio) is one of the game’s purveyors; the other, Haley (Zoe Terakes), has issues with Mia but perks up when she volunteers to “play.” The game revolves around a ritualized interaction with a strange relic. It looks like a mannequin hand, severed a few inches below the wrist, encased in plaster and covered with scrawled names and phrases. The player grasps the hand and commands “talk to me.” The result is an immediate confrontation with a vision of, well, what looks like someone from the realm of the dead. Their faces change immediately: their eyes grow wide, pupils become dilated, and there’s a shadowy, bruised look about their mouths.

This would be horrifying, if not for the fact that the onlookers mostly find this game hilarious. The “player” loses self-control, says strange things, performs humiliating actions, and takes on the personality of someone else. Based on the reactions of those who’ve played the game before, these possessions are random and always different. The hand-holding session is only allowed to last for 90 seconds (this strange game has “rules” that Joss and Haley learned from the guy who gave them the hand). When this brief period of possession (for that is what seems to be taking place) ends, the player acts as if they’ve just taken some wondrous drug: they’re giddy, energized, and ready for more. Mia finds the experience addictive. Soon after, she brings Riley to a party — en route they have an upsetting incident with a wounded animal. Mia is eager for distraction and is ready for another go at “the game.” Riley, whom she is charged to look after, also begs to play.

The game is fun and thrilling for all, a sort of rite of passage and key to being an insider in the group. And yet an unspoken caution looms: if the rules aren’t followed, things might go awry. And, of course, go awry they do. Even after Jade tries to be a voice of caution, the allure of the hand — its ability to create a link to a world beyond — is difficult to resist. Despite the lack of background or explanation for the occult item at the center of Talk to Me, I found it relatively easy to suspend my disbelief and become caught up in the story’s momentum. Oddly, when the game is played, no one seems to have taken the time to understand the mechanics of what’s going on, or to figure out solutions, just in case things spin out of control. Yet everyone is eager to record the phenomena on their smartphones. That’s an intriguing theme here, perhaps: a lack of engagement and curiosity wrought by an addiction to a digital sphere for socializing. The spectacle is more real than any potential harm; life lived via smartphone erodes empathy, and perhaps common sense as well.

Stylistically, Talk to Me is very slick. The special effects are beautifully done, though I did at times find the soundscape a bit too bombastic, taking me out of the moment. The naturalistic dialogue, realistic relationships, and character-driven plot points — enhanced by the performances of a tight and talented cast — make the supernatural scares and brutal violence hit the viscera even harder. In fact, viewers inured to the horror genre may find themselves having to look away from some of the film’s shocking and grotesque visuals. But, beyond its scenes of brutality and terror, Talk to Me is also a powerful iteration of the coming-of-age genre. It’s tempting to interpret the hand as a metaphor (Drugs? Sex? Adolescent risk-taking? Fear/fascination with death?). But the talismanic force of the object is also psychological, even spiritual. The hand waiting to be grasped (symbol of friendship and connection) reflects our desperate urge to belong, our desire to rise above trauma, our need to be part of something immediate and ecstatic — even if that something promises to be dangerous and deadly. It is a sobering message for these times.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

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