It’s logical that horror movies would introduce disabled characters into the genre. Who’s even more vulnerable than that iconic final girl in the slasher flick? How about someone who has a physical or mental condition that prevents them from reacting to a threat as quickly as someone else? These films have run the gamut: A Quiet Place made deft use of one character’s deafness, while Jessabelle completely blew its premise of having its heroine temporarily confined to a wheelchair. Somewhere in between lands Come Play, a Halloween movie whose main character is a boy on the autism spectrum. Mixed though the results are, this gambit from a first-time filmmaker repays his boldness.
The film stars Azhy Robertson as Oliver, a devoted 8-year-old SpongeBob SquarePants fan who can’t speak and needs a speech app on his phone to communicate verbally. One day, his dad (John Gallagher Jr.) brings home some loot from his unspeakably boring job as a late-night parking lot attendant: an unclaimed tablet with only a slightly cracked screen. The bigger defect is the tablet’s insistence on showing its users a story with pictures and text about a menacing skeleton named Larry who watches the world from the other side of the computer screen. Soon, Oliver’s speech software is talking back to him in its disjointed way: “Your mom and dad want you to be normal. I just want to be your friend.” What Larry really wants is to break through that screen into our world, using Oliver to do it.
Jacob Chase based this on his effective short film, entitled Larry. One of his inspired touches is that Larry can’t be seen with the naked eye, only with the cameras in phones and tablets. The film is like the various versions of The Ring, with ancient evils using our technology to strike at us. Larry’s early appearances are properly creepy, especially when he starts showing up in the father’s dark and isolated workplace. Oliver’s mom (Gillian Jacobs) invites a group of school bullies to the house for a sleepover, and the lead bully (Winslow Fegley) has an encounter with Larry that leaves him so traumatized that he loses the power of speech, because karma is a demon bitch.
Robertson is not autistic in real life, and you may recognize him as the kid being fought over in Marriage Story. I’m less bothered by the casting of a neurotypical kid than by the script’s fuzziness about the specifics of Oliver’s condition. His speech therapist (Eboni Booth) is only there to assure his parents that their visions of Larry are in their heads. Aside from his “stimming” behavior to calm himself down, he doesn’t react to Larry much differently from most other horror-movie characters. The film misses its chance to show us how his condition might either handicap or help him in a scary situation. Here’s where A Quiet Place is superior.
Alas, the story decisively falls apart in the final third. If this premise makes you think that Oliver might suddenly recover his speech at the film’s climactic moment, I’m afraid that’s exactly what happens. The script’s statement that Larry is born from our loneliness and absorption with our tech is preachy and tendentious. The tension in the parents’ marriage is a promising direction that goes largely unexplored, as is Larry trying to use Oliver’s autism to drive a wedge between the boy and his parents. The emotional load largely falls on Jacobs (in the role of the parent who’s with Oliver most of the time), and as wonderful as I’ve found her in comedies, the dramatic fireworks here don’t suit her. When she snaps and screams “Why can’t you be normal?” at Oliver, it doesn’t have the venom that it should.
For all that, Come Play is a necessary step. We easily accept films about characters with addictions or mental illnesses, which deploy the techniques of cinema to depict their states of mind. With autism rates on the rise, we’re seeing more films like Roman J. Israel, Esq. that put an autistic character at the center of a generic story and seeing how that condition changes the outlines of the genre. Someday someone will make a better film about an autistic character, and this one will have helped pave the way.
Starring Azhy Robertson and Gillian Jacobs. Written and directed by Jacob Chase, based on his own short film. Rated PG-13.