Come Play, 2020.
Written and Directed by Jacob Chase.
Starring John Gallagher Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, Rachel Wilson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, and Alana-Ashley Marques.
A monster named Larry that manifests itself through smartphones and mobile devices. Feature film version of the 2017 short film.
A clever concept is always a good starting point for a supernatural tale, but it’s wasted if the duration is spent watching key characters make the same mistakes and behave unbelievably dumb ad nauseam. That’s what it’s like watching Come Play (written and directed by Jacob Chase who is also adapting his own short story), which takes a ghost that lives inside of technology and uses electricity to terrorize children, marrying that idea to an autistic child incapable of speaking which presents daunting acting challenges for anyone let alone a young newcomer such as Azhy Robertson (you might recognize the young boy from debatably the best film of last year, Marriage Story where he did indeed hold his own when needed to alongside Oscar-worthy performances).
The boy’s name is Oliver and he is not exactly having the easiest time maintaining old friends, making new friends, or mending wounds with past pals. Of course, much of this is due to his condition and how he is different from the other kids, which is a dynamic that Come Play actually gets right when it comes to the bullying he is subjected to or the ablest jealousy hurled his direction from fellow classmates over him being able to use a smartphone during school (his primary means of verbal communication is through text-to-speech programs, other times creatively bringing up SpongeBob SquarePants clips to relay dialogue ) or allowed to get up and walk around to suppress his anxiety.
There also happens to be a scary story on one of his devices, specifically about a misunderstood and equally lonely monster named Larry who only wants a friend. Now, I would love to be corrected if I’m wrong, but it’s a mystery entirely how Oliver actually comes across this dark fable; it could be something he stumbled on while browsing the Internet, maybe the devices themselves are haunted by the presence of Larry, or maybe something about the environment causes the entity to manifest inside of these devices to then display what looks like a children’s picture book. Unsurprisingly, the more the story is read out loud, the more power Larry is given to crossover between realms (there’s also a nifty visual aspect where Larry’s physical presence can be seen through webcams or social media filters). In some ways the lack of information is welcome, but it’s also a case where these questions feel like basic plot points that should have been addressed even if it has to be done through cliché methods. This is a story about a ghost with no real origins or reasoning as to how or why it ended up within the vicinity of Oliver.
Perhaps too much thought is being put into the movie, but it’s also not engaging or scary enough to overlook those details. Oliver lives with his parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) on the verge of separating. His father appears to not care enough (often sleeping through Oliver’s night terrors) whereas his mom wants her affection to be reciprocated. Oliver’s mom is not necessarily the best at understanding her child’s condition (some of her cruel reactions actually feel forced, though) but there’s eventually more piled on to that rift. The issue is that the marital drama is undercooked, leaving the parents to one by one doubt the supernatural phenomena around them and Oliver’s cries for help, each getting their own individual set piece of terror and “there’s no such thing as monsters” trope speech that feels as if it should be combined into one scene to improve the pacing and flow.
Interactions with Oliver and kids his age fare stronger causing one to wish that the movie went more for nightmare fuel at the expense of them facing off against this unique presence. It’s already borrowing from Poltergeist without doing anything truly groundbreaking, so it might as well look towards classics like The Goonies or the recent It adaptations when it comes to injecting some charm into the child characters. Come Play does not overtly rely on jump scares, but it’s also appreciated that Jacob Chase is aware to stage some creepy shots of Larry through peripheral vision. As the climax approaches, Larry begins shifting away from phones and tablets into television, which brings to mind that even more probably could have been done with the central idea of electricity as a vessel for demonic powers. The monster design of Larry is also suitably freaky, looking like a hunched over skeletal beast resembling darkness itself.
Maybe Come Play should have stayed a short film considering Jacob Chase has made no compelling argument to justify this feature-length version. The ideas are all there and the characters are intriguing at their core, but they don’t feel fully realized. At least not until the final scene which is mildly moving yet should be emotionally shattering; that moment is where it’s most clear that no one really knew how to stretch the narrative in ways that serve the emotional impact of the ending. So only come play if you’re willing to see if one scene is enough to save a movie for you. Personally, it just shines a brighter light on all of the preceding flaws.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com