As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
Happy Halloween one and all! Looking for something new and creepy to watch that’s not as hard core, p*ss-your-pants scary as say, The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Well, Come Play might just be what you’re in the mood for. And unlike most recent indie horror, Come Play has an interesting angle to it that helps it stand out from the rest.
All through its history, Hollywood’s portrayal of people with special needs — especially intellectual and developmental disabilities — has always been a touchy thing. One reason is that more often than not, the on-screen portrayals end up making the special needs character into somewhat of a joke. Also, most of these roles end up going to able-bodied actors (and usually A-listers) instead of those with special needs. Come Play goes against the norm in a few ways: one, the main character is the one with the disability. Two, even though the character is portrayed by an able-bodied actor, it’s a situation where an able-bodied actor is the more sensible choice. Lastly, the portrayal is a smartly done, subtle performance instead of something like Forrest Gump.
Come Play begins by introducing us to our hero, an autistic boy named Oliver (Azhy Robertson) getting ready for bed. It’s pretty clear from the jump that Oliver’s nonverbal and his smartphone is not only his source of entertainment (he watches a lot of SpongeBob SquarePants, which apparently is a real thing, being hugely popular with kids on the autism spectrum), but also how he communicates. As Oliver shuts his bedroom door to block out the unpleasant, all-too-familiar sound of his parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher, Jr.), arguing, something seems to be watching Oliver from inside the phone. Then a storybook Oliver’s never seen before suddenly pops up on the phone. The story’s called “Misunderstood Monsters,” and it starts telling Oliver the sad tale of a creature called Larry — a creepy-looking, skeletal heap who gets made fun of because of how he looks. And just like Oliver, Larry’s very lonely and just wants a friend.
The only problem is that Larry is a monster — and as Oliver reads the story, weird things start happening. The lights flicker and go out and he hears Larry’s crunchy, crackly bones moving around him in the dark. Oliver gets scared and starts screaming, summoning his mother, who goes through their ritual of deep breathing to calm down. The next day he tries to tell his mom and dad about Larry, but they’re too busy arguing over who’s going to take Oliver to his speech therapy. The conflict between the parents is a familiar scene with any parents of a special-needs child. Sarah argues that she does all the work and takes Oliver to all his appointments, while Marty is mostly absent but the more popular parent. Sarah makes a point of saying that Oliver has never, ever looked directly at her — something that would definitely be heartbreaking for any mom. And the conflict has grown to such a degree that apparently Marty’s moving out, which only causes Oliver to grow more withdrawn.
Meanwhile, at school, while Oliver struggles to focus on the work, a few of the boys in his class (Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright) decide to pull a prank on him and lure him out to a field where they bully him and toss away his smartphone. Later, at his speech therapy session, Sarah tells the therapist (Eboni Booth) how terrified she was when Oliver wasn’t there to be picked up and she found him out in the field. The therapist tries to console Sarah and temper her expectations for Oliver’s progress. She also tells her how important it is for Oliver to socialize with other kids.
So Sarah does the proactive thing and arranges to have a sleepover at their house — and of course, since Oliver never told his mom who pulled the prank on him, Sarah ends up inviting the bullies. Jennifer (Rachel Wilson), the mother of the ringleader, Byron, apparently used to be good friends with Sarah, until an incident where Oliver accidentally hit Byron and made Sarah cut ties. But they try to patch it up for the sake of the kids — and of course, the boys never let on that they’re a bunch of bullying little sh*ts. But they get their comeuppance when Larry reemerges, thanks to a tablet that Oliver’s dad found at his job’s lost-and-found.
Byron and the gang read the story about Larry, and it brings him into the real world, making him real enough to overturn the dining room furniture and nearly strangle Byron. And even though the boys initially blame Oliver for the incident, Larry becomes enough of a problem for them too, that soon after, the boys admit that Oliver didn’t hurt them. It was Larry. And in a nice turn story-wise, Byron’s meanness dissipates and he and Oliver rekindle their friendship.
Meanwhile, Larry’s presence grows stronger and stronger, to the point where both Sarah and Marty start seeing what Oliver’s been trying to tell them. One of the best scenes in the flick comes when Marty takes Oliver with him to work as a parking lot attendant and Larry appears again, stalking them and getting close enough to physically grab Oliver. They manage to get away, but soon after that, Larry goes after Marty when he’s alone on the job. Marty tries to drive away but makes the huge mistake of trying to spot Larry on his phone while driving at the same time. Not surprisingly, he wrecks and gets sent to the hospital, getting him out of the way.
Sarah makes a last-ditch effort to rid the house of Larry by tossing every single screen out into the yard — every phone, every monitor, every computer. But it’s too late for that, as Larry still manages to use whatever electricity is left to reemerge. He stalks Sarah and Oliver around the house until they take refuge under a bed. And it’s here where Sarah and Oliver have an important, if really badly timed, discussion. Oliver asks Sarah by writing it out why she cut ties with Byron and his mom. Sarah admits that she was only thinking about what was easier for her, not for Oliver. She apologizes to him. Which is great but, oh yeah, Larry. Right.
So Oliver figures out how they can escape — by going back to the field. There’s no electricity around, so they should be safe. Right? Wrong. Larry’s apparently strong enough that he doesn’t need no stinking electricity. He’s there to take Oliver into his world and at this point Oliver realizes that the only way to stop Larry from hurting people is to go with him. But as Oliver reaches for Larry’s outstretched hand, Sarah suddenly appears and takes Larry’s hand, offering herself instead. And just before she morphs into the same type of ghoulish creature, Oliver finally looks directly at her. And then, in what’s hands-down the best scene in the whole flick, Marty awakens one night sometime later and goes downstairs to see Oliver spinning around in the living room. When Marty points his phone’s camera at him, he sees Sarah’s ghost there with Oliver, dancing with him. Oliver’s smiling and happy, looking directly at his ghostly mom.
Come Play does have its issues. As a horror tale, it is incredibly derivative of a ton of other stories (The Babadook is probably the most obvious). It uses a lot of the same scares you’ve already seen in a thousand other flicks and as a character, Larry is never developed at all. Who he is, where he comes from and how exactly he manages to enter and travel around the real world are never explained very well. He just is and you’re either willing to go along with it or not. But if you can see past those issues, you’ll find a big heart at the center of this flick. Much of it comes from Azhy Robertson’s terrific performance, but also from that ending. It’s just so sweet, sad and genuine that it actually leaves you feeling good. Maybe a little creeped-out and definitely a little misty, but good. And that alone makes the whole thing worthwhile.
Written and Directed By: Jacob Chase
Release Date: Oct. 30, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 36 min
Distributor: Focus Features
This article was originally published 10/30/20