Written and directed by Jacob Chase, adapted from his own five-minute short film, “Come Play” (not to be confused with the upcoming “Come Away”) has its biggest drawbacks in its rapid expansion from five to 96 minutes.
But the movie — which premieres Friday in whatever theaters are open — is so beautifully constructed, and so illuminates the human relationship of its three central characters, it overcomes its flaws.
Oliver (the remarkable young moptop actor Azhy Robertson, from “Marriage Story”) is an 8 year-old who loves SpongeBob Squarepants and who is on the autism spectrum.
He doesn’t speak, but communicates with his mother Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and father Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) via a spoken-word app on his smartphone.
One day an eBook called “Misunderstood Monster” appears on his device. It can’t be turned off, and it tells the story of a monster named Larry who is looking for a friend. At its conclusion, Larry will be able to “move through windows” into the real world to claim his new friend.
The movie is sometimes cloudy on Larry’s rules. Before he appears, lights flicker out, but in one scene Oliver grabs a baseball bat and smashes light bulbs that have come back on, making Larry disappear.
But when Larry is lurking around the house, looking for the hiding Oliver and Sarah, the hunt is so skillfully shown, that monster vs. little boy is the only thing that matters.
One production company involved in “Come Play” is Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and the movie has the slick professionalism of a young Spielberg. It certainly recalls the vivid suburban settings of fantasies and horrors like “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Poltergeist” as well their distinctive family dynamics.
Sarah appears to be the stay-at-home mom, trying to get her autistic child to behave more “normally,” forever frustrated, sometimes making bad decisions.
Marty, meanwhile, works all hours. When he’s home, he’s the “fun one,” which frustrates Sarah even more.
As the movie opens, Sarah sleeps alone in the double bed while Marty is stuffed onto the couch. Little touches like these make the characters seem more human.
But the film falters with introduction of bullies who pick on Oliver, take his phone and throw it into tall grass. Sarah gets the brilliant idea of having a sleepover with the three boys so they all can become friends. Before long, they’re indeed best buds, but it feels far too rushed.
That phone in the grass leads to another small plot hole, but, again, the movie is built well enough to get the job done.
In a great touch, the film shows Marty at work, sitting in a little booth in a dark, largely empty parking lot. This location promises many creepy visual ideas, and the movie makes the most of them.
The space in the family’s house is also used to clever effect, and razor-sharp editing by Gregory Plotkin of “Get Out” keeps everything prickly and tingling.
A chilling score by Roque Baños (the 2013 “Evil Dead”) and impressive sound design round things out; you’ll never quite forget the measured way Larry pads around the house, making unsettling clicking sounds, calling Oliver’s name.
However, “Come Play” scurries a bit close to, but can’t touch, Jennifer Kent’s great 2014 “The Babadook,” which already has entered the annals of horror history.
“The Babadook” delved deeply into largely unspoken, real-world fears around parenting and being parented. Solid as it is, “Come Play” doesn’t nearly go that deep, with its main theme that “being lonely sucks.” It’s true but hardly terrifying.
Great horror movies are rare, but good ones are worth celebrating, given that being scared — especially now — is a jolt we can use to remind ourselves we’re alive, and that monsters come in all shapes and sizes.
Starring: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Eboni Booth
Written and directed by: Jacob Chase
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes