YouTube Stars Conjure a Damn Good Time
Feb 4, 2023
“From the YouTube sensations…” isn’t exactly the phrase you want to hear going into a film — horror or otherwise. This set-up brings a certain amount of baggage that the audience will be hard-pressed to shake, regardless of the filmmaker’s talent. And yet, 2023 has already seen some promising works come from content creators on the online video platform, like festival sweetheart and experimental viral sensation “Skinamarink.” Now, against all odds, another hit film might be birthed by the purveyor of a billion pet videos, with a decidedly less experimental but darkly fun approach.
READ MORE: 25 Most Anticipated Movies At The 2023 Sundance Film Festival
On the surface, “Talk to Me” is a blast of demonic horror that will make your skin crawl. Underneath, it offers a new twist on the teen horror film that explores the complexities of grief and the transition from childhood to adulthood. The movie is directed by Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou, known online as RackaRacka. The duo has amassed a large following on YouTube with over 1.5 billion views – primarily by creating battle videos of your favorite pop culture characters (i.e., “Harry Potter” vs. “Star Wars,” etc.). But make no mistake, “Talk to Me” is nothing like their previous output. There is no cell phone cinematography or app effects. Instead — perhaps wanting to distance themselves from the content that started their careers — the brothers Philippou create a calculated, intense, and thought-provoking horror experience for the modern teenage audience.
The film follows Mia, played by Sophie Wilde in her first lead role. Mia is a seventeen-year-old girl dealing with the loss of her mother. She is tired of her father’s negative brooding presence and decides to escape to her best friend Jade’s house, a home away from home. However, when a social media video of a spiritual possession goes viral at school, Mia sees an opportunity to distract herself from the darkness surrounding her. She convinces Jade and Daniel — Mia’s first boyfriend! Drama! — to reluctantly join her at the next spiritual conjuring.
The group of friends soon discover that they can become temporarily possessed by using a ceramic embalmed hand that was allegedly made from the severed arm of a medium. The catch is that they must exorcise the spirit within 90 seconds, or it will try to stay. Mia has a turn, using the phrase “talk to me,” and is instantly taken over by an entity that seizes control of her body. Exhilarated by the experience, the group of friends keeps performing more and more seances until one of them inevitably goes too far. Pretty fun, right?
Hats off to the filmmaking team: the writing never feels heavy-handed or deliberately cheesy. Teen horror can often get bogged down in cringy expositional dialogue, but the script by Bill Hinzman, Danny Pearson, and Danny Philippou makes the most of the premise without explaining things too deeply or shorting the character moments that make you care about these central teenagers.
Before things turn dark, the teen party atmosphere is infectious, juvenile, and fun — just as it should be. And that may be the film’s biggest hurdle: casting teenage characters that are authentically bubbling with emotions and lean more towards relatable than grating. However, the Philippou brothers do very well across the board here. Sophie Wilde offers a standout performance as Mia and can play both a standard universal teenager and a wounded, playful, and unhinged person with equal depth and nuance. Other cast members also deliver strong performances, particularly the actors playing the teen roles — relative newcomers Alexandra Jensen, Otis Dhanji, Joe Bird, Zoe Terakes, and perhaps the film’s only well-known actor, Miranda Otto, who plays the mother of Mia’s friends.
Another welcome surprise comes in the form of Aaron McLisky’s confident cinematography. The DP behind FX’s “Mr. Inbetween” and Russell Crowe’s “Poker Face” mixes handheld and expertly deliberate camerawork along with a color palette that properly conveys the mood to construct a true visual treat. The filmmakers have done a great job of creating a sense of tension and unease throughout the film, and the (mostly) practical scares are effective without being overly gory. The thriller’s climax is particularly intense and haunting, leaving the audience with a final sequence that feels inevitable and leaves the door open for the world to expand.
Exploring adolescence and grief may be a tried-and-true formula for the horror genre, but “Talk to Me” proves that, if done right, there’s no reason one can’t play the hits and still succeed. Given the right push or solid word-of-mouth, the film could blossom into a successful teen horror franchise that can manage to deftly deliver scares and a message to its young audience in equal measure. It’s official — RackaRacka has graduated to not just proper filmmakers but damn promising ones. [B+]
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