COME PLAY movie poster | ©2020 Focus Features

COME PLAY movie poster | ©2020 Focus Features

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr.
Writer: Jacob Chase
Director: Jacob Chase
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: October 30, 2020

COME PLAY is produced by Amblin. This isn’t too surprising, as COME PLAY feels like something Amblin founder Steven Spielberg might have made in his younger years.

COME PLAY also feels like a less scary riff on THE BABADOOK. As with that 2014 traumatizer, we have the elements of a special-needs young boy – here, Oliver, played by Azhy Robertson – and a creepy illustrated storybook.

Instead of being pop-up, the text and pictures show up on Oliver’s electronic tablet in the form of an e-book titled MISUNDERSTOOD MONSTERS. This centers on one monster, the alarming-looking but very lonely Larry. The book tells us that Larry is different, made fun of, and just wants a friend.

Naturally, Oliver identifies with this. Oliver is autistic, able to read and write and make sounds. However, he needs an app to speak for him, one word at a time. Oliver’s mother Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and father Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) have conflicting approaches to their child’s non-verbal condition. Sarah takes Oliver to a speech therapist and tries to get him to interact more with other kids. Marty, who works part-time as a parking attendant, likes to just be the fun dad. This has put a lot of strain on the marriage.

At the same time, we are certain Larry is real. As Oliver watches SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS, we get Larry’s point of view from behind the screen (a good, creepy effect), watching Oliver.

As Larry’s quest to come into our world to get his new friend, lights begin to blow out and furniture moves on its own. Oliver understands very quickly what’s happening, and it doesn’t take Sarah long to be convinced. Once Larry is able to exert control over areas outside the home, even Marty believes. The question is, what can they do against this determined supernatural force?

Director/writer Jacob Chase is good at setting a tone of unease, and Larry has an impressively horrifying appearance. The cast is strong, especially wide-eyed Robertson, who has to convey an enormous spectrum of emotions with virtually no dialogue and not many sounds. The whole enterprise works as fun-scary (as opposed to terrifying) horror.

However, COME PLAY seems to have fought itself to a standstill in certain respects. There’s a message stated in the dialogue about how people are talking to the screens instead of to each other. Obviously, the filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated COVID, but it seems unfair to direct that at a protagonist who needs his screen to do his talking for him with the wider world. (Yes, Oliver can write out words, but the app saves him time.)

COME PLAY movie poster | ©2020 Focus Features

COME PLAY movie poster | ©2020 Focus Features

Also, Sarah and Marty’s marital/parenting problems feel both standard and obligatory, as though someone decided the stakes had to include family disintegration. It’s not that this isn’t a worthy matter for examination, but COME PLAY doesn’t integrate this well with its larger themes.

We also have questions of why Oliver can’t verbalize. We know that he’s autistic, but he is able to use words in other ways. We wind up understanding less rather than more about him by the finale.

Even so, COME PLAY fulfills its basic mandate of being spooky and having a cool creature without being gory. For those who like this horror subgenre, the movie works.

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