Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a little different and that make him a social pariah at his elementary school and the victim of bullying. His overprotective yet extraordinarily caring mom, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) harbors the guilt of responsibility, undeservedly so, for the severity of his situation as Oliver isn’t speaking and can’t make friends, a result of autism. But most of all, the fact that Oliver does not make eye contact, connecting emotionally with his mother, is simply gutting for Sarah. Oliver’s disconnected loneliness makes him the target of Larry, a “misunderstood monster” and this is where the horrors of friendship begin.
Oliver is a bright yet non-verbal boy who uses a communication board on his iPad to express himself. And on that iPad, a new book pops up one night—“The Misunderstood Monster.” Drawn to the images, Oliver begins to read. The lightbulbs begin to pop and strange noises are heard. Unable to scream for help, Oliver hides beneath the covers, shuddering as to what is lurking behind the doors or in the closet. It’s absolutely chilling as writer/director Jacob Chase takes full advantage of every childhood memory of being scared of things that go bump in the night.
Larry is the book’s subject, a monster who is attempting to cross into Oliver’s world as he just wants a friend. The more Oliver reads, the closer Larry gets, but try as he might, he can’t shut Larry off. Oliver’s ability to communicate with his mom is rudimentary but Sarah begins to see the light…and Larry. However, it’s not until she follows Oliver’s speech therapist’s direction, Dr. Robyn (Eboni Booth), to help Oliver establish friendships that Larry begins to become a bigger part of everyone’s lives.
Making friends for someone like Oliver is obviously difficult, but the cruelty of a group of boys led by pack leader Byron (Winslow Fegley) is heartbreaking. Of course, Mom unwittingly invites Byron and the boys over for a sleepover to help Oliver make friends, but what happens when Larry invites himself creates a total nightmare for everyone.
To give anymore of the story away would take away the chills and thrills as well as the key points of an unexpectedly engaging story. Chase ticks all the boxes of what makes a horror movie captivatingly chilling, but he does much more than that. He blends a narrative arc of reality with our silly and irrational fears of childhood with characters who we not only care about but identify with. These elements combined with precision editing of both sound and sight give us a horror film that will haunt you long after the credits roll.
Are there stereotypical elements of classic horror movies that make you jump and chuckle at yourself for falling for it? Of course, but isn’t that the fun of a horror film? Additionally, Chase is skillful in his writing and directing as he holds out seeing Larry until just the right moment, late in the film. He teases us as he uses the illustrations in the book to give us a sneak peek into what awaits us. Little by little, we see more of Larry, and it’s scary, but not having the complete picture from the beginning creates incredible tension, building incrementally until the story’s climax.
A film isn’t complete with just the story, its cast of characters, in this cast rather small, is vital to the film. Each actor, no matter their age, skillfully plays their parts, but a heavy load is placed upon the shoulders of Robertson as he has no dialogue playing Oliver, the lead role. With his huge round brown eyes, he’s is like a sweet innocent doe who is hunted by a monster. He conveys every emotion and thought non-verbally or laboriously with his communication device. He has a firm grasp of some of the possible attributes of someone with autism, primarily the lack of connecting eye contact, and with Chase’s direction, Robertson all the necessary tools to create a believable Oliver. The role of mom is quite important in Chase’s story and Jacobs who exudes an air of authenticity in every role she has portrays Sarah, a guilt-ridden mom who’s on overload and wants nothing more than to have a “normal” son, with exceptional skill. While the remainder of the small cast is certainly noteworthy, young Fegley as Byron the bully stands out. To create characters and have performances which feel real and natural in a monster movie is certainly quite a feat and a team effort all led by the director.
“Come Play” is a smart horror film capitalizing on the familiar while making a few pointed jabs at our social dependency on electronics and the dangers within. But on the surface, it’s a fun horror movie with an ending that may just pull on your heartstrings. How many times can you say that about a horror movie?
Opening in theaters October 30th.
3 1/2 stars