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Review: Come Play

October 30, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

While Steven Spielberg’s name doesn’t actually appear on Come Play, the new thriller about a monster who connects to our world through electronic devices, the film is produced by his company Amblin Partners, and the filmmaker’s influence is felt all over it.

It’s the way that Come Play mixes kids in peril, with a sense of wonder and a lot of heart, that makes it feel like an homage to vintage Amblin. And Spielberg touchstones such as E.T. and Poltergeist clearly provided inspiration for the film, which successfully balances spooky set-pieces with moments of surprisingly touching character drama.

The main character in the film is Oliver (Azhy Robertson), a non-speaking autistic kid whose smartphone functions as an adaptive device. Oliver uses the phone to communicate with others through speech software, and also to calm down by watching episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, as he is doing when we first meet him in the film. Then something strange happens; a mysterious e-book appears on his phone called Misunderstood Monsters, about a lonely creature named Larry who is in search of a friend.

Larry, a grey, long-limbed creature whose appearance is both frightening and somewhat sad, also uses electronic devices as a way to connect with our world, and the screens serve as a conduit for him to peer into and enter the physical realm. The creature senses a kindred spirit in the lonely and misunderstood Oliver, who gets picked on in school and doesn’t really have any friends, and starts using him to try and break into our world through a variety of electronic devices that Oliver interacts with.

Written and directed by young filmmaker Jacob Chase, who is expanding his 2017 short film Larry to feature length, Come Play does a very good job of weaving these elements of fantasy and horror into a surprisingly engaging dramatic story. Oliver’s parents are in the midst of separating. His mother Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) is preoccupied with taking him to therapy sessions in hopes of getting him to speak, and she is especially worried about his lack of friends. Sarah is starting to resent the way that Oliver’s father Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) dotes on him, including bringing home an old iPad to replace his lost phone, with this tablet providing a new way to interface with Larry.

There is also a very well done subplot involving a trio of boys at Oliver’s school, Byron (Winslow Fegley), Mateo (Jayden Marine) and Zach (Gavin MacIver-Wright), who cruelly bully him but also seem curious enough to spend time with him. Chase handles all of these different story elements quite well, and the film smartly keeps Oliver front and centre, taking us into his world and offering a sensitive portrayal of a non-speaking autistic kid. Robertson is believable in the role, while Jacobs and Gallagher Jr. both do very good work as Oliver’s parents.

Chase does a fine job of building suspense throughout the film, which at times plays like a somewhat tamer, digitized version of The Babadook, and the central conceit of a monster lurking behind the screens of electronic devices is pulled off quite cleverly. Larry is only visible through cameras, which leads to several inventive and very creepy sequences that seem inspired by augmented reality apps. The creature himself has been brought to life through some excellent practical effects, another impressive aspect of the film.

While too intense for younger viewers, Come Play is a solid PG-13 horror film that would be a good choice for older kids wanting to dip their toes into genre fare. The film delivers enough spine-tingling moments to keep us on edge, but this is one of those horror movies that occupies an emotional space as well, and the final moments of Come Play might just get you choked up, following a pulse-quickening climax. This is an effective mix of old school thrills channeled through a modern, technologically advanced lens, with a little bit of that classic, bittersweet Amblin magic mixed in.

Come Play is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

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