By Rod Lott.
If only it could be less silly…. Is there an app for that?”
While the invention of the cellphone has forced filmmakers to get more creative in keeping their characters in peril, few have been able to figure out how to use the mobile device as an effective story device. With Come Play, writer/director Jacob Chase has cracked that code, even if the story itself is wanting.
Thus, the cellular world still awaits a film it can claim as definitive, as the landline enjoys with Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls.
At first glance, Come Play’s pint-sized protagonist, Oliver, is like any normal boy. As played by Marriage Story’s custodial object, Azhy Robertson, his interests include fruit juice, dinosaur sheets and whatever’s on his smartphone.
Then we learn Oliver isn’t “normal” at all. He’s nonverbal. And beneath his smartphone screen lives a spindly, red-eyed monster from another dimension who just wants a friend. A skeletal, cracked-back creature with limbs long enough to suggest considerable time spent on a medieval rack, every chiropractor’s dream client is every kid’s worst nightmare.
As revealed by an eerie, Babadook-ian e-book appearing automatically on Oliver’s smartphone, its name is Larry. Although that name sounds as nonthreatening as a McLean Stevenson sitcom, Larry consistently exhibits malevolent behavior to which only Oliver is initially party. Given the boy’s limited communication skills, it sets up an intriguing idea akin to “What if Cole from The Sixth Sense couldn’t tell anyone he sees dead people?”
Under an unruly mop of movie-kid hair that suggests he instructed the barber to “gimme the Danny Lloyd,” Robertson delivers a wholly believable, nearly all-physical performance as Oliver. He’s incredible. With a modicum of words, he carries the entire film – too much to ask of most child actors whose age does not yet require counting beyond two hands. I wish Chase had more faith in Robertson’s abilities as a performer – or perhaps in audience members as smart people – so Come Play could go without exchanges as unnecessary as this one in the classroom:
“Why’s he get to use his phone in class?”
“Dude, he’s autistic!”
Fresh from I Used to Go Here, Gillian Jacobs finally gets a chance to play something other than a sour-faced millennial whose life is a total mess, here in the role of Oliver’s sour-faced mother whose life is a total mess. Part of her chaos is estrangement from Oliver’s less-than-supportive father, played by John Gallagher Jr. (whose other 2020 film, Underwater, also trafficks in terror). While working as a parking lot attendant, apparently on the overnight shift, Gallagher’s character centers a standout sequence – a scene, in fact, that served as the entirety of Larry, Chase’s 2017 short from which Come Play has been greatly expanded.
Not in the original short, a second scene in the same location nears its frayed-nerve level in adding two ingredients to the mix: Oliver and his dad’s laser distance meter. The way Chase employs the latter as a suspense-building tool is particularly ingenious, as are his use of smartphone camera filters in another memorable set piece.
Now, on the flip side of tech usage, the decision to have Larry live in mobile devices is goofy – a dubious decision that worsens as Chase cuts to Larry’s POV, eyeing his pint-sized prey through a phone or tablet screen; only a layer of glass and transparent icons separate their worlds. A common problem for features based on shorts, Chase feels a need to overexplain things, to ascribe a reason for why Larry does what he does. With no subtlety on his part, Chase hammers home the obvious message of parents, protect your children; all that’s missing is a Reefer Madness-style opening crawl warning of “an unspeakable scourge.”
No actor is talented enough to sell the hokey climax, hinging in part on Jacobs’ stakes-raised humming of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, slowed and near-whispered for maximum dramatic effect … and unintended laughter. Jacobs’ speech to Larry is an embarrassment, akin to if JoBeth Williams had screamed to the ghosts at Poltergeist’s denouement, “We understand now! We should limit Carol Anne’s TV time! Edward R. Murrow was right when he said television can be a force of good that illuminates and inspires, but it’s not just ‘wires and lights in a box’! It’s an instrument … of … evil!”
Elsewhere, Chase relies too often on current mainstream horror’s most unimaginative crutch: sudden! loud! noises!
At least he understands the technology powering the Come Play plot, whereas most mainstream chillers and thrillers leveraging cutting-edge tech – e.g., William Malone’s Feardotcom or Irwin Winkler’s The Net – do so in a way that can make one wonder whether the filmmakers have any experience directly interacting with the innovation in question. That tends to instantly date most efforts. Someday sooner than later, Come Play, too, will fall victim to real-world upgrades, but until then, the picture could be more contemporary only if Chase gave Oliver a peanut allergy.
If only it could be less silly, too. Is there an app for that?
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com from Oklahoma City. A former professional journalist whose film criticism and features were named his state’s best for four years, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books, including the forthcoming Flick Attack collection.