Combustible Celluloid
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With: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright
Written by: Jacob Chase
Directed by: Jacob Chase
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror, frightening images and some language
Running Time: 96
Date: 10/30/2020

Come Play (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Larry Tale

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Written and directed by Jacob Chase, adapted from his own 5-minute short film, Come Play (not to be confused with the upcoming Come Away) has its biggest drawbacks in the rapid expansion from 5 to 96 minutes.

But the movie — which starts Friday in whatever theaters are open — is so beautifully constructed, and with such a human relationship between its three central characters, that it effectively overcomes its flaws.

Oliver (the remarkable young moptop actor Azhy Robertson, from Marriage Story) is an 8 year-old who loves SpongeBob Squarepants and who is on the autism spectrum.

He doesn't speak, but communicates with his mother Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and father Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) via a spoken-word app on his smartphone.

One day an eBook called Misunderstood Monster suddenly appears on his device. It can't be turned off, and it tells the story of a monster named "Larry," who is looking for a friend. Once the story is finished, Larry will be able to "move through windows" into the real world to claim his new friend.

The movie is sometimes a little cloudy on Larry's rules. Before he appears, lights flicker out, but in one scene Oliver grabs a baseball bat and smashes some light bulbs that have come back on, making Larry disappear.

But when Larry is lurking around the house, looking for the hiding Oliver and Sarah, the hunt is so skillfully shown, that monster vs. little boy is the only thing that matters.

One of the production companies involved in Come Play is Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and the movie has the slick professionalism of a young Spielberg. It certainly recalls the vivid suburban settings of fantasies and horrors like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, as well as the modern family dynamics in those movies.

In Come Play, Sarah appears to be the stay-at-home mom, trying to get a child on the autism spectrum to behave more "normally," and forever frustrated, even making bad decisions.

Marty, meanwhile, works all hours. When he comes home, he's the "fun one," which frustrates Sarah even more.

As the movie opens, we notice that she sleeps alone in the double bed while Marty is stuffed onto the couch. Little touches like these make the characters seem more human.

Another bungle, however, is the introduction of three bullies who pick on Oliver, take his phone away and throw it into the tall grass. Sarah gets the brilliant idea of having a sleepover with the three boys, so that they can all become friends. Before long, they're indeed all best buds, but it feels far too rushed.

That phone in the grass leads to yet another small plot hole, but, again, the movie is built well enough to get the job done.

In one of the movie's best touches, Marty's job consists of him sitting in a little booth in the middle of a dark, largely empty parking lot. This location promises many creepy visual ideas, and the movie makes the most of them.

The three-dimensional space in the family house is also used to clever effect, and the razor-sharp editing, by Gregory Plotkin of Get Out, keeps everything prickly and tingling.

The chilling music score, by Roque Baños (the 2013 Evil Dead), and the impressive sound design round things out; you'll never quite forget the measured way Larry pads around the house, making unsettling clicking sounds, calling Oliver's name.

However, Come Play scurries a bit close to — and yet can't quite touch — Jennifer Kent's great 2014 film The Babadook, which has already entered the annals of horror history.

The Babadook delved deeply into largely unspoken, real-world fears around parenting and being parented. As solid as it is, Come Play never goes anywhere near that deep. Its main theme, more or less, is "being lonely sucks," which is also true, but hardly terrifying.

Great horror movies are rare, but even good ones are worth celebrating, given that being scared — especially now — is a jolt we can use to remind ourselves that we're alive, and that monsters come in all shapes and sizes.

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