COME PLAY is the feature-length directorial debut from writer/director Jacob Chase, based on his short film of the same name, about a boy named Oliver who comes into contact with a monster who manifests itself via smartphones/devices. The film stars Azhy Robertson (Marriage Story), Gillian Jacobs (“Community”), and John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane).
To best describe the plot, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “Newcomer Azhy Robertson stars as Oliver, a lonely young boy who feels different from everyone else. Desperate for a friend, he seeks solace and refuge in his ever-present cell phone and tablet. When a mysterious creature uses Oliver’s devices against him to break into our world. Oliver’s parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) must fight to save their son from the monster beyond the screen.
Leading the film is Azhy Robertson, who plays the SpongeBob-loving 8-year-old Oliver. Having done the proper research necessary to better understand autistic children, his performance felt respectful and natural within the scope of the project. As a viewer, you want nothing more than to protect him from both the real-life horrors of the world (such as the bullying he receives from classmates) as well as the supernatural. And when he does come into contact with the entity known as Larry, both digitally, through his smartphone, and in reality, the fear and terror that resonates on his face feels genuine. The dynamic between Oliver and those in his life is also interesting to see play out, especially since Oliver is non-verbal. This allows for a mainly physical performance from Azhy so as to convey Oliver’s wide-range of emotions to the audience.
Helping Oliver navigate childhood are his parents Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) and Sarah (Gillian Jacobs), a couple on the brink of divorce. Both appear haggard and overwhelmed, especially Jacobs, whose character has some difficulty connecting with her son. Unfortunately, her performance felt flat and the emotional range she needed to both care for her son and deal with the unfolding horrors wasn’t there. As for Gallagher, he had a bit more to work on in terms of the eventual transformation he undergoes due to the error of his ways. Though it’s frustrating to watch Marty get away with not helping with the day-to-day responsibilities needed for Oliver while his wife struggles to keep the household intact, Gallagher does it in such a way to remind the audience that he ultimately does want the best for his son.
As for the story itself, there are moments in which it really thrives, especially when Chase is setting up the scares. However, I felt like the plot got muddled at times when the focus became more about how terrible electronics can be and less on Oliver’s experience. I realize there is a metaphor there on how electronics are the bane of our existence, but it felt a bit heavy-handed to me and, at times, took me out of the overall vibe of the film. That said, I think Chase did a great job of presenting an autistic child and using aspects such as stimming, speech therapy, and image-to-voice apps to allow the viewer to better understand Oliver’s mindset. Though the third act suffers from some missteps and felt too Slenderman-ish (which I will avoid talking about further for spoiler reasons), the first two-thirds of the film are very strong and downright terrifying.
Speaking of terrifying, COME PLAY has some of the best scares I’ve seen this year. Chase did a tremendous job of crafting exceptional jump scares that had me teetering on the edge of my seat. I don’t know if this is the year of Snapchat filter scares (looking at you Host), but let me tell you, I’m all about it. The execution of this scene in question is immensely unnerving to the point where I found myself screaming at my TV for Oliver to shut off his Snapchat filter. Also, the moments which take place at the toll booth where Marty works had me shitting bricks. To add to the terror, Chase would emphasize sounds as cues for when Larry was approaching which made my skin crawl. I also appreciated how he used items such as newspapers flowing in the wind to latch themselves onto Larry to let the viewer know he is there watching and waiting. Furthermore, the design of Larry was incredible. Utilizing puppetry for the practical execution of Larry, Chase was able to create a living, breathing entity that is just as stunning in its construction as it is horrifying.
Overall, I think horror fans will enjoy the scares and atmosphere that COME PLAY has to offer. It suffers from some writing issues and character development, especially in regards to the mom, but overall it’s a touching story about being accepted for who you are, even if it doesn’t fall into the category of what some perceive to be “normal”.
COME PLAY is now available to own on Digital, Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand.