Come Play

If you've ever been frustrated because your kids spend too much time staring at their device screens, Come Play will delight you. It suggests evil is lurking behind those screens, waiting to spring forth and take advantage of young minds. A relevant idea, for sure. But this isn't just one of the best horror movies of the year, it's one of the best movies of the year, period. Since it is in the horror genre, though, I feel compelled to point out that everything a great scary film needs is accounted for: stylish direction, honestly-earned jolts, three-dimensional characters, and a story that uses creepy elements to get at an idea of substance.

Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a non-verbal boy whose parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in the midst of separating. He's caught in the middle of their feuds. Sarah resents being responsible for speech therapy and managing Oliver's condition on a day-to-day basis while Marty plays the role of “buddy,” being present mostly when it's fun time. Despite not saying it outright, the kid has visibly picked up on their stress.

One day, a new e-book appears randomly on Oliver's tablet. It's about a lonely monster named Larry who comes into the human world in search of a “friend” he can drag back to his own dimension. If you guessed that Larry is real and has targeted Oliver through any and all devices, you're absolutely correct. I won't say more than that. Come Play is better the less you know. Don't watch any trailers or TV spots. Don't let anyone tell you what happens.

Movies with paranormal subject matter tend to spring their scares on the audience in predictable ways. Watch enough of them and you can almost count down to the exact moment something will happen. Too much space on one side of the screen is a dead giveaway, as you know something will pop up there. Too many seconds of silence means a loud noise is coming. Stuff like that.

Come Play finds new approaches to generating chills. The ways Larry reveals himself are continually surprising. He uses technological devices to make his presence known. No lie – the scene in which he first reveals himself via an app function most of us have used gave me chills. A later sequence is ingenious in how it suggests the physical distance between the unseen Larry and the innocent Oliver narrows. Writer/director Jacob Chase clearly put a lot of time into devising fresh ways to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

On the horror level, the movie is incessantly creepy. All the requisite chills are delivered. They build to a final confrontation that is appropriately suspenseful. Come Play is not just Oliver's story, it's Sarah's as well. Here is what truly elevates the picture. Like The Babadook, this is a horror movie about parenting. Sarah obviously loves Oliver. At the same time, she expresses a wish that he could be “normal” because taking care of his needs with little support from Marty has worn her down. That wish makes her feel like a bad parent. Upon figuring out that her child is in danger from the screens he's absorbed in, Sarah realizes it will be solely up to her to protect him. Her arc leads to an emotionally satisfying resolution that might leave you a little choked up.

Gillian Jacobs – giving her second great performance this year, after I Used to Go Here – makes Sarah's inner turmoil affecting. She's nicely offset by Gallagher, who is very credible as the “fun dad” willfully lacking an understanding of his child's special needs. On his end, Robertson (Marriage Story) does strong work conveying all of Oliver's feelings without the use of words. He's admirably natural in the role.

Come Play is a stellar scary movie, not only about a monster, but also about the soul-crushing fear of a parent realizing her already-vulnerable kid is in jeopardy. The film left me frazzled and dazzled.

out of four

Come Play is rated PG-13 for terror, frightening images and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.