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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    'Talk to Me' speaks to everyone

    "Barbie" is an undeniable blockbuster, but "Talk to Me" - an indie horror film that sets inconsolable grief against a backdrop of adolescent ennui - is the real triumph of the summer box office.

    The A24 film, in which a group of teenagers discover they can communicate with the dead using an embalmed hand, has proved both profitable and popular. Released at the end of July, the movie has made more than 10 times its $4.5 million budget at the global box office. (A sequel is already in the works.) Experts praise the film as a successful pairing of traditional horror elements and the profound stories that can be told from a supernatural perspective. "Talk to Me" spins a thoughtful meditation on grief that is particularly resonant as the world emerges from a deadly pandemic. It is also a testament to the reputation of the indie studio, which has leaned into the intersection of grief and horror.

    "Talk to Me" marks the feature directorial debut of Danny and Michael Philippou - the Australian twins behind the horror-comedy YouTube channel RackaRacka - and features a young, mostly Aussie cast led by Sophie Wilde (Netflix's "You Don't Know Me").

    Wilde plays Mia, a young woman whose grief is heightened as she marks the second anniversary of her mother's passing, leading her to try a daring stunt. Those who touch the hand see a random dead person and, upon inviting them in, are put into a trance-like state as possessive spirits make them say and do unpredictable, often dangerous, things. For most of the group, it's a thrill-seeking exercise that makes for entertaining social media posts. But for Mia, it becomes a desperate and addictive attempt to reach her mother.

    The film has been well-received by critics, boasting a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "There's nothing revolutionary about the premise of naive idiots attempting to get closer to death," The Post's Olivia McCormack wrote in a three-star review. "But it's the ingenious combination of horror and human connection that makes 'Talk to Me,' well, something to talk about."

    Grief has long been a prominent theme in horror films, but it has taken on more visibility in the last decade, said Adam Lowenstein, a professor of English and Film & Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

    He cites acclaimed films such as "Relic," which puts a supernatural lens on an elderly woman's deterioration from dementia, and Jennifer Kent's psychological horror "The Babadook," about a widowed, single mother and son whose lives are upended by a monster from a mysterious picture book. (The 2014 film featured the Philippou brothers as crew members and the filmmakers have cited Kent's influence on their feature debut.) Even Jordan Peele's "Get Out," which viscerally explored the horror and trauma of racism, rooted its main character's story in the death of his mother - and the guilt he felt at not being able to save her, he said.

    "Talk to Me" contains traditional horror elements - such as jump scares and memorable sequences, Lowenstein said, but it also offers "thoughtful and ambitious meditation on the relationship between life and death."

    Kessler, the author of "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief," has seen it across theater screens this summer, from Barbie's existential crisis to the way "Oppenheimer" grapples with its subject's catastrophic invention.

    "It is a conversation we still don't quite know how to explore personally," Kessler added. "And movies give us this vicarious way to try to open the door."

    A24 has built a reputation for smart horror films that explore grief and other complex topics. Its biggest horror success to date is Ari Aster's "Hereditary," which became the indie studio's highest-grossing film following its release in 2018. Five years later, "Hereditary" is still the studio's highest-grossing horror film and, including all genres, is second only to the Oscar-winning "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once." Aster has infused grief into subsequent A24 efforts including "Midsommar" (2019), a nightmarish breakup tale set in a seemingly idyllic Swedish village, and "Beau is Afraid" (2023), a shock-filled romp about a middle-aged man's mommy issues.

    "Talk to Me," which surpassed box office projections during its first weekend in theaters, is now A24's second highest-grossing horror film.

    The film is "one of the unsung heroes - or maybe sung hero - of the summer of 2023," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for ComScore.

    A24's branding - and knack for edgy horror films that dive deeper - is at least part of the excitement around the film. Dergarabedian noted that the trailer for the movie is "terrific," and the studio's recognizable logo appears 16 seconds in the film's trailer, with the A and 24 separated by the contorted hand that fuels much of the movie's terror.

    Lowenstein was in Australia earlier this year to give talks on his recent book, which looks at the ways horror films can reflect cultural issues. When he got to Adelaide, where "Talk to Me" premiered at the city's annual film festival last year, "everyone I met, the first thing they wanted to ask me was, 'So what did you think of Talk to Me?'"

    Lowenstein had to wait until the film was released stateside to see what all the buzz was about. In the theater, he recalled, there were "so many moments where you could feel the audience, as one, cringe or shout out in disbelief or in distress, or laugh with relief."

    "It's a very cinematic movie in the sense of involving an audience in a really visceral and . . . ultimately, healthy way," he said.


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