By: Kevin Jordan
There’s an app for everything.
Parenting during the pandemic has been quite a challenge. All of the things that are important for children – attending school, being around other kids their age, spreading their time across multiple activities, not being around parents 24/7 – have been completely disrupted. Among those things is limiting screen-time, an issue that has become as divisive as video-games-causing-real-life-violence (of which multiple studies show no causal links). There are plenty of books and research studies looking into the effects of screen-time on children, but now we have a film – Come Play – literally trying to scare the screen-time out of us.
(SPOILERS AHEAD – For the movie, not the books and studies.)
Unlike most horror films, Come Play gets straight to the plot within thirty seconds of the film beginning – a monster is living in young Oliver’s (Azhy Robertson) phone. This is revealed to us by the camera zooming in on Oliver’s phone, then switching to a view of Oliver from behind the phone screen. It is a clever technique, as it puts us into the eyes of the monster for a moment (we can also hear the monster breathing). The monster then adds his own app to Oliver’s phone, a story book called Misunderstood Monsters, which appears front and center and cannot be closed unless the monster allows it. In order to escape the phone, Oliver must read the book to its end. How do I know this? It says so in the book because this movie is not subtle.
The other thing we learn right away is that Oliver is autistic. This is only important to the plot (and the monster) in that Oliver is mute and uses the phone to literally talk to people (with an app). Oliver’s autism doesn’t make him more attuned to the monster or the monster more attracted to Oliver. In more than one scene, the monster jumps to Oliver’s dad’s (John Gallagher Jr.) phone and terrorizes him for a while. On top of that, Oliver’s actions are wildly inconsistent. In some scenes, Oliver is terrified of the monster and in other scenes, Oliver is playfully curious about the monster. I know next to nothing about the full range of autism behaviors and characteristics, but it seems like whenever the writers needed the characters to do horror movie cliches – like investigating a flickering light as they are literally rushing to get out of the house – they used autism as the reason for it.
The film also goes out its way to convince us that Oliver’s parents are morons. Early in the film, some bullies throw Oliver’s phone into an overgrown field and Oliver is unable to find it. He tells his mom (Gillian Jacobs) his phone is lost in a field (where she found him frantically searching for it), but all she can do is fret about how expensive phones are and gives it up for lost. Hey idiot! Call it. It will make noises and light up, making it really easy to find. For something so vital to Oliver and his parents, plus they seem to be short on cash, they sure aren’t in any hurry to find the several-hundred-dollar device that is its own tracking mechanism.
On the positive side, the movie is legitimately creepy. Not the phone part, that’s absurd, but the monster is one of the scarier looking movie monsters I’ve seen in a long time. And his name is Larry. Fuck that. What is more terrifying than a nightmarish creature with a normal name? Nothing.
The movie hits its groove when Oliver’s mom organizes a sleepover for Oliver. As the kids are trying to go to sleep, Oliver is humming and staring at a closet he threw his iPad (stolen from lost and found by Oliver’s dad, shortly before abandoning Oliver and Sarah, Oliver’s mom) into. This was one of those times when Oliver was terrified of Larry. Anyway, the other kids find the iPad and Larry’s app is cued up for them. One of the kids starts reading and gets further into the story than Oliver had previously. Light bulbs start popping and the kids start screaming. Oliver uses the iPad to find Larry and the kids scream even louder. Somehow, this does not alert Sarah, giving Larry a chance to try to snatch one of the kids. Larry fails, but this sets the rest of the movie on a proper scary movie course and, really, just in time since the movie was kind of annoying prior to this scene.
It also leads to the explanation for Larry’s existence, the moral of the story, and more horror movie cliches. I do not want to spoil the whole movie for you, but the question of “why Oliver?” is never answered and becomes even more muddled when Larry’s book tells us how Larry came to be. Plus, eventually, Larry just starts paging through the book himself, which pretty much negates the rules of his book. And, if that counts as reading it, could they have defeated Larry by just shutting their eyes? Also, if reading the book is how Larry gets out (of another dimension, we’re told), why is he able to affect Oliver’s world while he is still in his dimension? Rules? There are no rules here.
Having said all that, I really did enjoy the movie. Truly creepy monster movies are few and far between and it is even tougher to be scared by a movie right now given how horrifying real life has been in the year 2020. Like most monster flicks, there are some glaring holes and contradictions, but Larry makes them forgivable (well, maybe not the final scene – that was just bullshit in every way possible). Maybe the most important thing to forgive is that the movie is essentially calling all screens evil. I won’t advocate a screen being a babysitter, but parental sanity is just as important to a kid’s growth. Where’s the app for that?
Rating: Ask for a dollar back and try to get some sleep. Larry says you are on your phone too much.