IGN serves a global audience, so with Come Play opening in theatrical release this week, we are publishing our review from Rosie Knight who watched the movie via a digital screener. Read more on IGN’s policy on movie reviews in light of COVID-19 here. IGN strongly encourages anyone considering going to a movie theater during the COVID-19 pandemic to check their local public health and safety guidelines before buying a ticket.
Come Play began life as a short horror film and after watching the feature-length version it’s clear that it should have stayed that way.
Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a young autistic boy who lives with his struggling parents. Played by Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr. respectively, Sarah and Marty are Hollywood’s version of struggling A.K.A. they live in a huge house and seem to be doing fine unless the narrative calls for it. Why the creative team decided to make Oliver autistic is baffling, especially as their idea of what it is to be autistic is as dated as the ’80s inspired tone they’re trying to emulate.
Like every other child (and adult) in 2020, Oliver uses his tablet and phone religiously; he also occasionally uses it to communicate. But in Come Play it’s used as one more way to show that he’s “different.” He also has no friends because apparently, the filmmakers think autistic people are incapable of making them. That combined with his mother’s terrible parenting means that Oliver is an easy target for Larry, a monster that lives in his tablet — no, we don’t find out any more about that — and communicates via flashing lights and a Babadook-lite digital book.
The strangest thing about Come Play is that for a film that (quite cleverly) utilizes technology as a tool for horror it feels painfully outdated, not just in its representation of Oliver but also in its understanding of children, parenting, and horror. Jacobs’ mother is a classic “tired” mom, but her treatment of Oliver leans into abuse and neglect. There’s no explanation or understanding of why the parents would have never come up with a more sustainable way to communicate with their non-verbal son than an app they only keep on his phone and only his phone. Sign language? Makaton? Dynavox? The fact he can write but almost never uses that to communicate? It’s a huge issue with the script that doesn’t work on a logical or narrative level.
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There seems to be a struggle between the urge to make a zeitgeisty horror — technology is bad, kids who use tablets need to go outside — and the want to make the monster a metaphor. But whatever Larry is an analog for is lost on this reviewer. There were a few worrying moments when he seemed to represent Oliver’s autism, but luckily that was more like bad storytelling or misdirection than a commitment to an unforgivable trope. If Larry really is just meant to represent loneliness then it’s a confusing representation because while loneliness does kill, Come Play doesn’t have the range to explore what that would really mean for the story.
Now that we’ve got that riveting narrative out of the way, we can talk about Come Play’s biggest failing: it’s boring. The realm of PG-13 horror can be truly terrifying with films like Lights Out, A Quiet Place, Insidious, and Mama putting the fear in film fans of all ages. Come Play wants to be more like the former than the latter selection, aiming for a family horror movie that will insert Larry into the nightmares of children and adults alike. But aside from the horrors of the bad parenting decisions, the scares are few and far between no matter what your age.
Come Play struggles to build tension in any legitimate way and the at first innovative way of finding Larry (through a tablet or phone camera) soon becomes tiresome. Do you really want to watch an entire movie through an AR app? I’m usually a fan of a film where you rarely see a monster but there’s not enough tension or fear built in to make you scared of what you can’t see. Also, the monster we’re supposed to be afraid of is old news now, the ghoul of creepypastas from years gone by. When Larry finally does show himself he is actually pretty spooky-looking, but the reveal is a cheap one that doesn’t hold any impact. And it’s so late in the film that you’ll likely be wrapped up in queries about just what’s going on or why you should care.
Robertson does a good job with what he’s given, although the film leans heavily into outdated stereotypes about autism that likely would have been far better handled if they’d cast an actor on the spectrum. Gallagher Jr. is sweet as a barely-there dad who is definitely the parent Oliver should be living with. Jacobs is very good as an abhorrently horrible mother, but Come Play doesn’t have the powerful writing or performances of The Babadook which delved into mental health and motherhood in a much more substantial way. Here it’s unclear whether Jacobs’ is meant to be a hero, villain, or just an Everywoman; but to any disabled viewers watching she’ll strike fear in your heart as an example of just how awful those who are meant to care for us can be. Oliver is a sweet, thoughtful child, and Sarah’s exasperation at his existence makes no sense in the context of the story or what we’re shown of her quiet and kind son.
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Source: IGN.com Come Play Review