In the new horror-drama “Talk to Me,” main character Mia believes she can commune with her late mother’s spirit through an embalmed hand that serves as a portal to the underworld. The possibility of her mother’s return entices Mia enough to risk her best friend’s little brother’s soul to keep her around a little longer. It’s terrible to watch, and not only because of the bespoke practical effects that suck the life out of the actor’s faces. Mia’s behavior is oddly familiar. Her selfishness — driven by an ache for answers and the reassurance that she’s not alone — is characteristic of teenhood, even one that isn’t marred by family tragedy and, you know, demonic possession.
The movie, which opened in Boston Friday, is made by first-time feature film directors Danny and Michael Philippou, 30-year-old twins from Adelaide, Australia, who have been making shorts under their popular screwball YouTube channel RackaRacka since 2013. The brothers’ image — YouTubers with 6.74 million followers but no formal film training — wasn’t immediately taken seriously on a global stage. After shopping “Talk to Me” around to US-based studios, they decided to independently finance the film — allowing them to shoot in Australia with an Australian cast and crew — though it was later picked up by A24, after festival success.
Danny, who co-wrote the script with Bill Hinzman, channeled the brothers’ experience of losing a parental figure at 13. In press notes for the film, Sydney-born breakout star Sophie Wilde, who plays Mia, said she was drawn to the project because of its “authentic” portrayal of teens today. In the film, the characters grasp the embalmed hand, “letting in” the spirits, while their friends record their possessions for social media.
In an interview with the Globe, Danny spoke about the horrors of teenage impulsivity and the online culture that tempts us all with the promise of feeling less alone.
Q. There’s an additional layer of horror in the kids’ instinct to record the possessions and post them online.
A. It was based on someone that I watched experimenting with drugs for the first time. He was having a really negative reaction, and all the kids he was with were filming him and laughing while he was convulsing on the floor. And I remember seeing that footage and trying to understand the psychology behind it. Like, thinking it’s funny but not really grasping the seriousness or the depth of the situation.
Q. In other interviews, you’ve talked about this film expressing themes that young people are dealing with right now. Can you identify some of those themes?
A. There’s a little bit of glorification of certain vices online, and self-image is really bad, and the depression rates in young people are up. The actual effect of social media is still so new, so we don’t know how it’s going to affect someone’s psyche 30 or 40 years from now.
Q. How did you approach the mother-daughter angle of the film?
A. Growing up, we were little delinquents, and our grandfather moved in to try and help control us. He lived with us, made us breakfast, took us to school. But when we were 13, he died in our house. That parental figure being ripped out of your life just leaves a hole in you, and it’s scary what you can fill it with when you’ve got nothing to grab onto.
Q. Some people are fainting in theaters watching your film. What have you heard since the release?
A. There’s been some fainting at the cinema, there’s been some vomiting. There are horror scenes, but that was never my intention to make people pass out and vomit — though it’s sort of cool in one way. [The film] is pretty graphic when it gets graphic, I can’t deny that. But I never set out to make a splatter film. We always wanted our horror to be grounded in the character, to work as a horror film and a drama. The best reaction I hear is that people who don’t like horror films like this film.
Q. What was most intimidating about the process of making your first feature?
A. It was a bit scary because some people are like, “They’re YouTubers, they don’t know how to make a movie.” And some of that lives in your head. During the day I felt so confident, like, “I really like the script, I like our cast, I like the heads of departments.” But then when I went to sleep, I’d get overtaken with the other thoughts. Like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t believe people are trusting millions of dollars in us.” The imposter syndrome was at 100 when we spoke to the A24 team, and I was like, “Why the hell am I on this stage? I’m so embarrassed.”
Q. Has the response — from critics, audiences, and festivals — surprised you?
A. The whole reception has surprised me. The fact that we got into Sundance surprised me; the fact that A24 picked it up surprised me. I feel like I’m dreaming. It’s so surreal.
Interview was edited and condensed for clarity.