Review by David Baldwin
Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is 8-years-old, friendless and on the autism spectrum. He is non-verbal, so he communicates by writing and typing on his phone and tablet. One night, he awakens to a children’s story on his phone called “Misunderstood Monsters”. The story revolves around a monster named Larry, who longs to be loved and have a friend to play with. As Oliver reads the story, weird things start happening in his room. He thinks nothing of it, but Larry is desperate to make a new friend and will stop at nothing to make sure it’s Oliver.
Prior to this year, I never put a whole lot of thought into the “kids in peril” genre, specifically as it relates to horror movies. The films were either good or bad, and the decisions made by the characters usually landed somewhere between asinine and completely outrageous. Of course I saw myself in the kid characters, but I never really saw myself as one of the parents. But now that I have a child of my own, all I could see when I watched Come Play was how much I related to the parent characters and their struggle to keep their child safe. It was something I could suddenly empathize with, and something I actually understood versus something I merely had an understanding of.
And when I think of it that way, Come Play becomes the kind of visceral, eye-opening experience that I am not sure I will be able to ever watch again while my son is growing up.
That may sound like a ringing endorsement for Come Play and a light suggestion of how scary the film is. And I want to say that it is really scary for everyone watching, not just new Dads terrified of how they are going to keep their children safe. But Come Play is only half as effective as those things. Writer/Director Jacob Chase, in adapting his short film Larry, has indeed made a moderately creepy thriller that does its best to fit into that 1980s Spielbergian mold of childlike wonder and innocence (which is made stronger by the fact that Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners produced the film). In making the film like that however, it is never really clear who Chase made it for — teenagers and young children who would watch the film at sleepovers, or adults and parents like me who would watch later at night once their kids are asleep.
With that in mind, it is not hard to imagine the film not being a success for either group. It is not scary enough for kids and is not dark enough for adults. It straddles the line between both sides and never seems willing to fully give into either one. Do not get me wrong, some moments are truly chilling and compelling (specifically because Robertson is so great at articulating and communicating Oliver’s fear physically rather than verbally), as is the way Chase uses Oliver’s technology and manipulates the film’s soundtrack to deliver a handful of prime scares. But the film is not consistent enough. And despite running 96-minutes long, it lacks the momentum needed to propel itself from beginning to end. It also cribs from Lights Out and The Babadook, but it’s not like the majority of the audience keeps track of these things the same way critics do.
And the less said about its ending, which is best described as schmaltzy macabre, the better. I doubt even Guillermo del Toro would dare go in the utterly bizarre direction this one does.
While I loved how Chase used visual and puppet effects to bring Larry to life, I think the best thing he does do — and what he should have done much more of — was focus on Oliver’s parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr.). Their impending divorce really sets the film in motion, and the way they struggle throughout to understand how they can best care for Oliver leads to some truly emotional moments, especially for Jacobs. The way the film addresses Oliver’s non-verbal autism diagnosis in these scenes is truly wonderful, and more detailed than you might expect. But Chase never leans far enough into any of this, seeming just content to let it play out in the background away from the madness going on with Larry in the foreground. It would have gone a long way to build on Robertson’s terrific performance, but much like other elements within Come Play, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Come Play is quietly effective in some moments, but suffers from an identity crisis in others. It never knows quite how far to go to please its audience and does not explore everything it presents in the way that it should. I started this review off by noting how visceral and eye-opening Come Play was to watch as an new parent. And while I know those feelings will likely not dissipate anytime I watch a movie of its ilk in the future (especially not for the next 18 years at least), I feel like they would have been better served by a better film.
Come Play hits theatres on Friday, October 30. Please ensure you are cautious and respect all Covid-19 protocols if you choose to see this film theatrically.