We chose to watch Talk to Me as a fun, scary teen horror movie for Halloween night, and reader, it was not as fun as I’d been led to believe. This is a very well-made movie that accomplishes almost everything I think it sets out to do, but I definitely didn’t enjoy watching it.
In fact, it’s as if I had the opposite of the suspension of disbelief while watching it. The premise of the movie is absurd, but perfectly in the way that befits a fun horror movie: teenagers have a new party craze in which they use a weird hand sculpture in a ritual to summon a dead person and briefly become possessed by them. It reads like a novel take on Ouija or Bloody Mary, where it’s spooky supernatural fun until something goes horribly wrong.
But watching things go horribly wrong in Talk to Me felt miserable — like, The Exorcist‘s relentlessly depressing scenes about loss of faith and how we fail each other as humans — instead of ratcheting up tension. The last third of the movie does have a structure similar to other horror movies, where the teens try to figure out the “rules” of what torments them. But the centerpiece sequence of the movie is so intense and violent, and the situation is so bleak, that I never once felt there was any glimmer of hope for these characters.
The movie also spends a lot of time showing us teenagers being absolute remorseless sociopaths. I remember my teenage years as being brutal, but not to the point of being openly hostile to everyone for no good reason, or hanging out with people who showed me (and each other) such open contempt. I don’t know if it was a case of teens these days being even crueler than they were in the 80s, commentary on bullying and social media pressure, or justification for why these characters would keep treating something so obviously horrific as if it were a fun game. It’s likely a combination of all three.
I also think it was used in a similar way to the panic, in-fighting, and overall instability of The Blair Witch Project: after spending so much time in a stressful environment surrounded by unlikeable characters making bad decisions, you’re enough on edge that you’re primed for maximum freakout.
Most of the characters are too over-the-top to be that believable, but there are two performances at the core of the movie — Sophie Wilde as the protagonist Mia, and Miranda Otto as the mother of Mia’s best friend — that are almost too believable. Mia spends the whole movie making terrible decisions, that you fully appreciate are terrible as they’re being made, but you also understand why she keeps doing them. You’re never allowed to get out of her mindset long enough to be yelling back at the screen, telling her to stop.
And it initially seemed like overkill to be casting someone of Otto’s caliber in the role of “best friend’s mom,” especially since she has relatively little screen time. But when you look at the story as a whole, it becomes clearer why her part is so important: she’s the only adult in the story with any kind of presence. She’s so relatable, the “cool mom” who gets it but still has enough authority to set boundaries, that you understand completely, how desperately Mia needs a mother.
I believe that everything I’ve mentioned is in service of the idea at the movie’s core: a primal fear of being alone. So much of the movie is driven by Mia’s grief, but I think that the movie makes a very perceptive observation about grief, which is that so much of it is loneliness. There’s a feeling of being unmoored. Mia is desperate to find some kind of connection after the loss of her mother, but she’s surrounded by people who seem lonely themselves, and unhappy in all of their relationships. Most — if not all — of the scenes in Talk to Me repeat this recurring idea, lonely people trying to find some kind of connection.
I don’t want to understate how effective the horror scenes are; in particular, the sequence in which everything goes wrong is intense and horrible and extremely well done. But Talk to Me keeps up an almost-unbearable level of tension throughout, much more horrible than ghosts are gonna get me!
We see Mia doing things that destroy everything important to her, and we know that there’s nothing she can do to fix it. Talk to Me makes a show of entering its third act, where the characters figure out more of the rules of the horrific thing they’re facing, and they work to defeat it. But there’s a feeling of dull certainty that none of it is going to work, and in fact will only make it worse. The worst has already happened. The ghosts are so desperate to make a connection with anyone that they’re even willing to talk to drunk asshole teenagers.