With a Little Help from My Friends: Coming of Age in ‘The Black Phone’

By Jerry Smith

Art: Nick Scumaci

When I was in the fourth grade, I was almost abducted on my walk home from school. I remember the scent of the van with its doors open, the way my would-be kidnapper wore his blue and black flannel shirt (an odd choice for a hot day, I remember thinking) way too high to cover the bottom of his jaw. I remember all of those things like they happened yesterday. What I remember the most though, is how soon a friend ran up holding his skateboard with a grip that spoke for him, saying, “This is going to get brutal for you if you don’t hit the bricks.”

I was a quiet and reserved kid, stayed to myself more than most, face deep in a Clive Barker or Stephen King book while other kids my age tagged nearby buildings and tried to score with girls. I was an easy target and the only reason I am writing this today and am not in a grave somewhere is that a friend was there when I truly needed him to be. This theme, and many others, are perfectly captured in Scott Derrickson’s chilling hit film The Black Phone (2021).

Adapted from Joe Hill’s short story of the same name (check out his collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts (2005), if you haven’t already), The Black Phone captures coming of age better than most films tend to do these days. Anyone who has ever played little league will smile at how you can almost smell the scents of the concession stand in the film’s opening baseball game. Derrickson, along with co-writer C. Robert Cargill, is able to capture how it feels to be a kid in the middle of childhood and beyond, like the keep-your-head-down-and-just-mind-your-own mentality that so many kids of abuse tend to have.

When we meet the film’s duo of protagonists, brother and sister Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen Blake (a standout performance by Madeline McGraw), there’s a familiarity found within the pair that anyone who has lived through the pain of living with an alcoholic and abusive parent can sense. There’s a bond between Finney and Gwen that is forged in the fires of just trying to not only get through each day but to make sure each other does as well. We care about the kids in The Black Phone, so by the time Ethan Hawke’s Grabber character shows up, we are already so invested in them, that we’re shaken to our core by the idea of something bad possibly happening to Finney or Gwen. A series of kidnappings rock the town, and kids are on edge, afraid to speak of “The Grabber” since speaking the name almost acts as a conduit for the murderer to appear and serves as a precursor to the supernatural elements we eventually discover. With each sequence of the Grabber abducting children, we are on edge knowing his terror will eventually cross paths with one of the heroes of the film, and when it does, we hope Finney finds a way to escape.

While The Black Phone’s setup is solid as ever, where the film really shines (to this writer) is when we as viewers are inside the concrete heavy room that Finney is being kept in, our own desperation lives and breathes alongside the boy. So, when we’re with Gwen, who possesses somewhat of a psychic link that helps her have visions of The Grabber and where he’s located, we feel like we’re a part of the story. It’s so incredibly easy to live within the film, to breathe alongside our protagonists, and to feel fear when they’re in danger. Derrickson and Cargill took the wonderful relatability of Hill’s story and brought it to a place that feels so very authentic and so easy to latch onto.

Stuck in a room with only a black phone, Finney soon receives phone calls from the spirits of the town’s dead children who were murdered by The Grabber. Each spirit helps Finney not only find a way out but helps him find his own voice in the process. When we first met Finney, he was just trying to not be noticed, but as the film goes on, there’s a determination and power that the boy soon wields that allows him to grow up in front of our eyes. By the time the film ends, we know that Finney is going to be alright and that there isn’t a single person who will ever victimize him again. Each spirit teaches Finney something about himself, which aids him in his own journey of finding a way out of captivity — it’s a great touch to the story that feels fully fleshed out and executed well. The importance of each spirit — each kid — to Finney’s survival is where the movie really shines: friends having your back allows you to grow as an individual.

There’s a scene fairly early in the film where Finney wakes up hearing Gwen screaming and crying. As Finney walks into the kitchen and sees his father physically abusing his sister, as viewers, we’re expecting, and even WANTING, the camera to pull away — we don’t want to experience Gwen’s pain. The Black Phone refuses to do that, so we have to watch the abuse and the moment afterward when Gwen lays her head on Finney’s shoulder. It’s an unspoken moment of “I got you.” When Finney is abducted later in the film, it’s the promise of “I got you” that Gwen makes good on. Her determination to fulfill that promise to Finney leads to many of the film’s revelations. The bond the children share makes way for escape and release, not only from The Grabber but also in my favorite moment of the film. As Finney and Gwen are sitting at the back of an ambulance, their remorseful father runs up and cries, begging for their forgiveness, his head down in shame for the hell he put his kids through, but the duo can’t and won’t bring themselves to say they forgive him. They know they will not because, at the end of the day, they have each other. At the end of the day, it’s those who show up when you need them that stand the test of time, and it’s those individuals who inspire us to fight, to survive, and to endure.

The Black Phone is a great example of using horror to tell stories that cut deep, stories that reach into your soul and live there. The film captures the importance of friends, the importance of discovering yourself, the importance of stepping up to the challenges in life and giving 100 percent, and when that isn’t quite enough to win, giving another 100 percent. It’s a film about taking life’s horror and finding the courage to make it out in one piece. 🩸

About

Jerry Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, they have annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow them on Twitter @JerryisjustOK and visit their website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com.

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