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Review: ‘Come Play’ turns your screen into a window of terror (Includes first-hand account)

It doesn’t take much for a kid to catch a bully’s attention, but being different is like having a giant target painted on their back. Special treatment, vulnerabilities and awkward social behaviour are just some of the things that can make a kid stick out from the crowd — having all three is a recipe for loneliness. But there are worse things than being alone. There are monsters that prey on young people’s isolation, using the solitude to draw them away from their families and into the darkness. Come Play is about a boy whose lack of companionship awakens a creature that wants nothing more than to be his friend.

Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is an autistic boy who uses a phone app to communicate with the world. He attends public school in an attempt to provide social stimulation, but he’s ostracized by his peers for all the reasons stated above. His mother, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs), dotes on him, while his father, Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), isn’t really sure how to handle his special needs. One night, Oliver is awakened by a new story app on his phone: “Misunderstood Monsters: A Children’s Story.” It’s about Larry, who’s observed Oliver’s loneliness through the screen and wants to be his friend… and he’s not taking “no” for an answer.

Taking its direction from other monster pictures, audiences only see glimpses of Larry until the end of the movie. One can see he’s tall, lanky and disproportionate, but his face is generally obscured save for the occasional peek of his bright red eyes. However, most disturbing is the manner in which Oliver initially spots the creature — via his device’s camera and a facial recognition filter that identifies a face hiding in the darkness. The further they read into Larry’s storybook, the closer he gets to entering their world and claiming his new friend. In the meantime, he terrorizes anyone who makes the mistake of reading his story or trying to stand between him and Oliver.

There are at least two underlying meanings that can be derived from the picture. Firstly, everyone’s attachment to their devices is inhibiting their ability to connect in real-life, creating a pandemic of loneliness. Even though Oliver uses his phone to communicate, he also hides from the world with it by immersing himself in Spongebob Squarepants cartoons. Secondly, devices open people to a digital world filled with threats. Larry can be seen as a metaphor for online predators, preying on children with low self-esteem or who find themselves feeling alone. His attempts to lure Oliver away from his parents and bribe him with gifts are pretty standard tactics — if he didn’t look so scary, he probably would’ve had an easier time of it.

The effectiveness of a horror movie almost always comes down to two things: the acting and special effects. Luckily, this picture displays talent in both areas. While Jacobs and Gallagher, Jr. must carry their fair share of the film, most of the narrative rests on Robertson’s shoulders. He did a surprising amount of research for the role, including shadowing children on the spectrum so he would be able to mimic some of their shared mannerisms. He’s quite convincing, both as a child with autism and a kid scared to death. For the special effects, people may be surprised to discover Larry is a practical creature effect inspired by Jim Henson’s puppetry skills. There are obviously scenes that require CGI, but it adds a layer of frightening magic to know the creature exists in an FX workshop somewhere.

Movies that can make audiences wary of generally benign objects or actions can typically be considered a success. Although people may not fear a monstrous story taking over their screens, they may now just feel the briefest moment of fear when taking a selfie in a dark room.

Director: Jacob Chase
Starring: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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