Meet Oliver (Azhy Robertson). He’s eight years old or so, and is somewhere on the Autism spectrum. He loves SpongeBob Squarepants. Oliver doesn’t talk, though his speech therapist thinks he’s making some progress; he uses a sort of modern speak-and-spell app on his phone to communicate. His mom, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs), worries about him constantly. His dad, Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), isn’t sure how to help him either, which causes a lot of friction between the couple. The boy used to be pals with his classmate, Byron (Winslow Fegley), but then Sarah and Byron’s mom had a falling out. Now the kid torments Oliver. He has no friends.
Now meet Larry. He is spindly, stooped and about seven or eight feet tall. Imagine Gollum had a child with Slenderman — that’s Larry. He lives in a story titled Misunderstood Monsters, which is available online. Don’t worry if you can’t find it, because it will eventually find you. You can’t see him when he’s in the real world, though if your powers sources start flickering and things began seemingly moving of their own accord, that’s probably him. (He does show up on iPad cameras, however, sort of like a Pokémon Go creature.) Larry has glowing red eyes, a raspy voice and is very, very lonely. He has no friends, either.
Only Larry would very much like to have Oliver as his friend. According to the e-book, if he finds a fellow alienated soul, he wants that kindred spirit to come live with him forever and forever. Take his hand, and you will pass from your world to his. And should you get in the way of what Larry wants … ah, that would make Larry angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
An extension of his 2017 short, writer-director Jacob Chase’s feature debut lives in the no man’s land between Grimm fairy tales and modern technophobia; its single best (and blessedly not overused) recurring shot is Larry’s POV perspective from behind a phone’s glass front. You’d have to go back to the first few seasons of Black Mirror to find this much paranoia over our collective reliance on so many screens, which peaks once Sarah — who, like most folks, is skeptical that Larry is real, until she very much isn’t — starts throwing the household’s flat-screen TV’s, tablets, laptops, etc., out of the household. The payoff behind that sequence, with a front-yard graveyard of trashed smart-tech springing back to life and foretelling something wicked this way is coming, almost makes up for how familiar the rest of the film seems.
And Robertson, we should mention, is indeed the best thing here — as anyone who saw Marriage Story and walked away thinking, “Wow, who was that kid cast as Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s son?!” will tell you, the young actor is quite a find. (The fact that he looks like a dead ringer for Danny Lloyd, who played the psychically gifted child in The Shining all those years ago, will add bonus shivers down the backs of viewers’ spines.) And he’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do in terms of expressing Oliver’s closed-off inner world, his inability to communicate verbally, his fear over this unwelcome visitor who keeps beckoning him to keep him company, and his navigation through schoolyard hierarchies and at-home instability. It’s Robertson’s wide eyes, quivering lips and panicky glances that stick with you more than the lonely CGI ghoul or the things he makes go bump in the night.
As for the rest of Come Play, it coasts by on a basic Spooky 101 vibe, with a host of tried-and-true scare tactics brushing up against the soft-hearted narrative of a boy in desperate need for connection. The oh-my-god jump shocks, the Val Lewton suggestiveness, the unexpected appearances of faces in the dark or grasping, clawlike hands from under beds, the detuning strings on the score as menace slowly makes itself apparent, the frantic last-act pursuit through shadowy hallways and dark, woodsy areas — it’s a little like a horror-film role call. For every clever use of hinting that danger is near (there’s some nifty business with a laser-based tape measure), there are several incoming clichés to knock things down a few pegs. You could accuse Chase of relying heavily on a second-hand Spielbergian vein of sentimentality, were it not for the fact that the Close Encounters filmmaker’s production company Amblin was directly involved. Personally, we’re crossing our fingers that the Babadook doesn’t want to sue Larry regarding derivative-work claims.
There are much worse things than semi-stylish, slightly generic horror films, especially those channeling the sort of moody children’s-lit work of authors like Maurice Sendak (an alt-title: Where the Wild Things Scar?) in the name of creepiness. There are also better movies to seek out in the name of mining childhood for nightmare fodder, and Come Play feels very much like a watch-this-space endeavor. Chase now has a calling card. We’re curious to see what doors this opens for him. There’s the sense that, five movies down the road, fans may look at this as a foundational career text. For now, you may want to pass on the title’s invitation.