There’s a monster in “Come Play” that no one can quite grab, and if there’s an underlying metaphor for that monster, writer-director Jacob Chase (adapting his short film) has similar difficulties getting his arms around any deeper meaning.
Not that all monster movies have to be laden with significance, obviously, but without some deeper idea at play here, all that’s left is a routine, jump-scare-laden PG-13 horror tale featuring a cast that’s above the film’s paygrade.
Azhy Robertson (“Marriage Story,” “The Plot Against America”) stars as Oliver, an autistic child who, like many children, spends most of his day staring at screens, although when he’s not watching “SpongeBob Squarepants,” he uses an app on his phone for verbal communication. Oliver’s special needs have, perhaps, strained the marriage of his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), but their estrangement is one of several plot threads the film raises, only to mostly ignore.
One day, a story called “Misunderstood Monsters” pops up on Oliver’s phone, and it’s all about a creepy, hunched-over creature named Larry, who lives in an alternate dimension and really, really wants Oliver to be his friend, so much so that he wants to turn the “windows” (i.e. the screens) that separate their worlds into doors, so that Oliver can come live with him forever and ever. Oliver does his best to communicate the impending danger, but it’s not until his classmates and his parents have their own first-hand encounters with Larry that they appreciate the gravity of the situation.
On a basic, spooky level, there’s an idea for a movie here, but as “Come Play” proceeds, it feels more and more like Chase is baiting-and-switching us with ideas that never come to fruition. Is this a fable about contemporary life and our addiction to the screens in our hands? Does Larry represent Sarah and/or Marty’s inability to cope with the challenges of raising Oliver? Ultimately, this comes off like a first draft that hasn’t quite pieced together its various notions.
The cast, as mentioned, far outshines the material: Robertson once again manages to convey emotion and induce empathy, even in a virtually dialogue-free role, and Jacobs and Gallagher Jr. build in enough subtext to their relationship that you’d want to see a different movie about their marriage. (Perhaps that film could explain how they live in such a huge house when dad’s job is graveyard shift as a parking-lot attendant.) Winslow Fegley (“Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made”) brings menace to a class bully who gets a lot nicer after having a run-in with Larry.
One resounding success in “Come Play” is Larry himself, presented here as a practical effect rather than a digital one; the spiny, unsettling puppet is a creation of Gary Pawlowski of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, with creature effects artist Emily Fiora Parks and special effects coordinator Hudson Kenny, not to mention the team of puppeteers that bring him to shambling, grabby life.
Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (“Crawl”) effectively hides Larry in the shadows until it’s time to see him, and he makes effective use of the fact that, for much of the film, the human eye can’t see Larry but the camera on a phone or tablet can.
If “Come Play” successfully mounted itself as a fright machine or otherwise effective genre exercise, then there wouldn’t be time to sit through it asking questions about its intent or deeper meaning. But it doesn’t, so there is.