Review: ‘Come Play,’ starring Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Azhy Robertson and Winslow Fegley

October 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

John Gallagher Jr., Azhy Robertson and Gillian Jacobs in “Come Play” (Photo by Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features)

“Come Play”

Directed by Jacob Chase

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Come Play” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mute autistic boy comes across a mysterious computer app where a sinister creature named Larry wants to make a human friend.

Culture Audience: “Come Play” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that have a simple story, good visual effects and scares that aren’t very bloody or gruesome, but other viewers might be easily bored by the repetitive nature of this story.

Gavin MacIver-Wright, Winslow Fegley, Azhy Robertson and Jayden Marine as “Mateo” in “Come Play” (Photo by Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features)

“Come Play” is the type of horror movie that would have been better off as a short film. Although “Come Play” benefits from better-than-average performances from the movie’s main actors, and the final third of the film is the most impactful, the movie’s concept ultimately stretches too thin for a feature-length film. There are too many long sections of the movie that become repetitive and dull before the climactic “showdown” scene. “Come Play” will also draw inevitable comparisons to writer/director Jennifer Kent’s far-superior 2014 horror film “The Babadook,” a movie that’s also about a sinister creature that lives in the pages of a children’s story, and the creature can transport itself into the world when people read the story.

Written and directed by Jacob Chase, “Come Play” (which is based on Chase’s short film “Larry”) demonstrates that he has a good eye for creating the right spooky atmosphere in the right places. The casting for this movie is also well-done. However, the first two-thirds of the film are essentially a repeat loop of a mute kid trying to convince his parents that an evil monster lives in a spooky story app that keeps showing up mysteriously on his computer tablet and phone. His frustration over not being believed becomes tedious to watch after a while, because it doesn’t progress the story until one of his parents start to believe him more than the other parent.

The 8-year-old child at the center of the story is Oliver (played by Azhy Robertson, in a terrific performance), who is autistic and mute. Oliver communicates through a talking computer device that can say the words that he selects. Oliver’s autism has not prevented him from going to a regular public school, but in the beginning of the movie, it’s shown that he is an outcast and a loner at school.

Oliver’s well-meaning parents are Sarah (played by Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who end up separating during this story. Their separation had already been decided before this story took place, and there are hints that Marty is going to be the one who moves out of the house. In the opening scene, Marty is sleeping on the couch, while Sarah is sleeping alone in their bedroom. And there are some packed boxes in the living room, as if he’s already started his move out of the home.

Oliver doesn’t know yet that his parents have decided to split up when he first encounters the creepy monster named Larry. The creature is a skeletal, hunched-over figure that Oliver first sees as an illustration in a children’s story app called “Misunderstood Monsters” that shows up on his computer tablet one night when he’s lying awake in bed. As Oliver swipes through the pages of this story, he sees these words: “This is Larry. Larry never gets to play pretend. He gets made fun of because he’s different. Larry just wants a friend.”

When Oliver gets to another page screen on the tablet, the lights suddenly go off in his room and in the hallway outside of his room. And then he hears the sound of dragging footsteps that get closer and closer, until he screams. And then, Oliver’s mother Sarah comes in the room and tells Oliver that he must have had a nightmare.

The pattern happens every time someone looks at the “Misunderstood Monsters” app and reads Larry’s story. The only variations are when Larry “appears” or seems to appear, Larry sometimes does something a little different. Larry might be crouched in a corner of the living room or kitchen. Larry might be lurking in a hallway. Eventually, it’s revealed that when any computer device with the Larry story is aimed right at Larry, the creature can only be seen on the device’s camera.

When the Larry creature is shown in its full-body entirety, the visuals effects are fairly good, but not uniquely impressive enough, considering that the “skeleton man” archetype has been used before in many other horror movies. But since “Come Play” isn’t a gory horror movie, Larry doesn’t seem to be a vicious murderer. If he does want someone to play with, how is that going to happen?

Even if Oliver tries to stop using his computer tablet and hides it, Larry has a way of coming back into Oliver’s life. Marty works the late shift as a security guard in an outdoor parking lot. For whatever reason, in one of those “only in a movie” coincidences, Marty sees a computer tablet that was in the lost-and-found bin at his work station. This tablet has the Larry story on it, and Marty starts reading it while he’s on the job. Several lights in the parking lot suddenly go out. And then, cars in the parking lot start blink their lights or mysteriously revving their engines.

Marty thinks it’s a freak electricity malfunction, but viewers of “Come Play” know better. Marty brings home the computer tablet and gives the tablet to Oliver as a replacement for the one that Byron threw away in the field. And with that, Larry is back in the family home and back in Oliver’s life.

The plot of “Come Play” is a little too flimsy to be sustained with these mild scares. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the movie never really explains why Larry has targeted this family, although viewers can assume that Oliver’s “outcast” loneliness might have been what attracted Larry. At one point in the story, Larry tells Oliver through computer language: “Your parents want you to be normal. I just want to be your friend.” Oliver is the first one in the family to see Larry, but eventually, Oliver’s not the only one.

Even though there are some Larry moments that are genuinely creepy, there’s absolutely no context of how Larry came into existence and how long Larry has possibly existed. The simple plot of this movie really is that a monster comes after a boy, who has a hard time convincing his parents and everyone around him that what he’s experiencing is real. The adults predictably think that Oliver just has an active imagination.

And then there’s the cliché horror subplot of a bully who gets a comeuppance. Oliver is bullied by a brat named Byron (played by Winslow Fegley), who is in the same class as Oliver at school. One day, Byron and two of his cronies—Zach (played by Gavin MacIver-Wright) and Mateo (played by Jaden Marine)—lure Oliver into a deserted field. After some taunting and roughing up of Oliver, who calls Byron “ugly” in response, Byron gets so angry that he takes Oliver’s talking device and throws it so far into the field that Oliver can’t find it.

Why does Byron seem to hate Oliver so much? It turns out that Byron and Oliver used to be best friends, but they had a falling out, and Byron still has a lot of resentment over it. Bryon’s mother Jennifer (played by Rachel Wilson) was also a close friend of Sarah’s, but when their sons stopped being friends, Jennifer and Sarah grew distant from each other too. The details of these estrangements are revealed later in the film, because it’s the catalyst for the story’s more sentimental emotional moments.

After the bullying incident in the field, Sarah decides the best way to end the bullying is to try to get Byron to become friends with Oliver again. Sarah invites Byron to come to their house for a sleepover with Oliver, but Byron will only accept the invitation if he can bring Zach and Mateo with him. It’s during this sleepover that Byron, Mateo and Zach find out about Larry the monster.

Sarah isn’t just trying to repair Oliver’s relationship with Byron. She’s trying to improve her relationship with Oliver. As a homemaker, Sarah spends more time with Oliver than Marty does, and that becomes even more so after Marty moves out of the house. Sarah is the one who accompanies Oliver to his speech therapy sessions, while Marty makes excuses not to go or he has work commitments that prevent him from being there.

Sarah is also the parent who’s more of a disciplinarian, while Marty tends to be more lenient with Oliver. Therefore, Sarah thinks Oliver loves her less than he loves Marty because she’s not the “fun” parent. It’s caused some long-simmering resentment that Sarah has toward Marty, although it’s unclear how much this resentment has caused their marriage to deteriorate. In fact, it’s never really explained why Sarah and Marty broke up, but apparently, the breakup was a long time coming.

It’s an example of how parts of this story are too vague and why this movie would’ve worked better as a short film. A feature-length film can and should have time for more context so viewers can have better insight into the characters’ personalities. Jacobs and Gallagher are very good in their roles, but their characters are just a little too generic for this story.

As for Robertson, he’s by far the best aspect of this movie. Because Oliver is mute, Robertson has to do a lot of acting with his wonderfully expressive face. And even though his character doesn’t use his mouth to talk, Robertson is still able to convey a lot of emotions that will endear people to Oliver. It’s refreshing to see an autistic character portrayed in a way that is poignant yet not exploitative.

Unfortunately, by the time the action really heats up by the end of the film, it’s somewhat diluted when Sarah and Oliver are hiding under a bed and are supposed to be quiet, but then Sarah uses that moment to have a whispered heart-to-heart talk with Oliver. It doesn’t make sense to drop this conversation in the moment where they’re supposed to be the most silent. Even though “Come Play” has a touching message about the strength of a mother’s love, that message is not enough to overcome all the time that’s wasted where not much happens in the movie except a slightly varied rehash of several other scenes.

Focus Features released “Come Play” in U.S. cinemas in October 30, 2020.

Review: ‘I Used to Go Here,’ starring Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks, Forrest Goodluck, Zoë Chao and Jorma Taccone

August 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement in “I Used to Go Here” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“I Used to Go Here”

Directed by Kris Rey

Culture Representation: Taking place in Illinois, the comedy/drama film “I Used to Go Here” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, one African American and one Native American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Chicago-based writer in her 30s, who’s going through some issues in her career and personal life, is invited to be a guest speaker at her university alma mater, where memories of her college experiences make her feel insecure about her current life. 

Culture Audience: “I Used to Go Here” will appeal mostly to people who like realistic independent dramedies about life during and after college.

Josh Wiggins, Gillian Jacobs, Khloe Janel and Forrest Goodluck in “I Used to Go Here” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Anyone who has ever been to a class reunion, gone back to visit a school they used to attend, or had a conversation with a former classmate after years of not speaking to each other can probably relate in some way to the low-key but engaging comedy/drama film “I Used to Go Here.” Written and directed by Kris Rey, “I Used to Go Here” goes on an emotionally authentic journey with someone who is reminded of the hopes and dreams she had in college, as she comes to terms with how her life has turned out so far.

The movie opens in Chicago, where writer Kate Conklin (played by Gillian Jacobs), who’s in her late 30s, is on a conference call getting some bad news from two people who work for her book publisher. Her first novel, a love story titled “Seasons Passed,” has recently been published, but sales have been disappointing. As a result, her book tour has been cancelled.

The book representatives give Kate a glimmer of hope by telling her that The New York Times will be publishing a review of the book. If the review is positive, Kate’s book tour could be resurrected. They assure her that the book’s commercial failure has a lot to do with declining book sales in general, but something about the patronizing tone in the voices indicates that it’s a canned comment that they tell authors whose book sales are flopping.

In the meantime, Kate (who is single and has no children) is experiencing some breakup blues. She’s not completely over the end of her relationship with her former fiancé Michael, who used to live with her. (It’s never revealed in the movie why they broke up or how long they were together.

When Kate goes through some of her mail at her apartment, she sees that Michael has gotten some junk mail delivered to the address. And she uses it as an excuse to call him. She gets his voice mail and leaves a message to tell him that he’s still getting “important” mail at her address, and she asks him to call her back because “it would be nice to talk to you.”

As if it isn’t made clear enough that Kate is supposed to look like a sad and lonely spinster, there’s a scene of her looking forlorn at a baby shower where she seems to be the only woman there who isn’t a wife or mother. Someone asks Kate to get in a photo with three pregnant woman at the party, and she uncomfortably agrees to be in the photo.

One of the pregnant women is Kate’s close friend Laura (played by Zoë Chao), who has known Kate since their college days at the fictional Illinois University in Carbondale, where Kate graduated 15 years ago. (The real-life university in Carbondale is Southern Illinois University.) Throughout the movie, Kate and Laura call each other to give updates on their lives and provide emotional support for each other.

Not long after her book tour has been cancelled, Kate gets some good news that lifts her spirits: David Kirkpatrick (played by Jemaine Clement), her favorite professor from Illinois University, has called to invite her to be a guest speaker at the university, where she will do a lecture that includes reading excerpts from “Seasons Passed.” Kate was in David’s creative writing class in the first year that he was a professor, and she was his star student. Kate is flattered by the invitation and immediately says yes.

Carbondale is about 330 miles from Chicago, so the university provides for Kate’s travel and living accommodations during her visit. They arrange for Kate to have an on-call driver: a friendly and nerdy student named Elliot (played by Rammel Chan), who seems to be attracted to Kate when they first meet. When Elliot genuinely tells Kate that he’s a big fan of her, he does so in a sweet and endearing way, not in a creepy or stalker-ish way.

The university has arranged for Kate to stay at a bed-and-breakfast house that happens to be directly across the street from the house where Kate used to live when she an Illinois University student. The woman who owns the bed-and-breakfast house is named Mrs. Beeter (played by Cindy Gold), who has a cold and abrupt demeanor when she tells Kate the “house rules.”

One of the rules is that Mrs. Beeter gives guests only one set of keys. If the keys are lost, the guest might be locked out of the house. Mrs. Beeter has the keys on a lanyard, and she insists that Kate wear the lanyard to decrease the chance of the keys getting lost. It’s at this moment that viewers can predict that Kate will at some point lose the keys and be locked out of the house.

When Kate meets up with David on campus before her guest lecture, it’s clear that there’s some mutual but unspoken attraction between them. Shortly after they begin talking, a woman comes over to David, and he introduces her as his wife, Alexis (played by Kristina Valada-Viars), whom he’s been married to for five years. The disappointed and surprised look on Kate’s face indicates that she was hoping that David would be single and available.

Kate and Alexis exchange pleasant “nice to meet you” talk. Alexis tells Kate, “David talks about you all the time.” David, looking slightly embarrassed, says: “Well, not all the time.” It’s another sign of some underlying feelings that David might have toward Kate.

Kate’s lecture, which was hosted by the university’s creative writing department, goes fairly well, despite Kate’s initial nervousness. Afterward, David invites Kate to have dinner with him and Alexis. Some tension in Alexis and David’s marriage starts to show when David blurts out that Alexis doesn’t like Kate’s book “Seasons Passed.”

It’s now Alexis’ turn to be embarrassed, and she reluctantly admits that she didn’t feel emotionally connected to the book after reading it. Kate graciously accepts the criticism, but the negative feedback makes Alexis uncomfortable enough that she excuses herself to go to the ladies’ room. Before Alexis leaves the table, she calls David an “asshole” in front of Kate, who gives Alexis a knowing smile, as if to say, “I know he can be a jerk too.”

While Alexis is in the restroom, David tells Kate that there’s an opening in the university’s creative writing department, and he wants to recommend her for the job if she’s interested. David is very eager for Kate to become his co-worker, but she’s not ready to make that decision right then and there, so she doesn’t give an answer.

The next day, Kate is taking a selfie in front of the house she used to live in as a college student, when one of the house’s residents comes out and introduces himself. His nickname is Animal (played by Forrest Goodluck), and when she tells him that she used to live there when she was a college student, he invites her inside. During her nostalgic tour of the house, she meets two other housemates: socially awkward Tall Brandon (played by Brandon Daley) and self-assured Hugo (played by Josh Wiggins).

Hannah marvels at how some of the unique touches that she put in the house (decorating one of the room’s ceilings with stars and having a writers’ corner in another room) are still there. She’s also thrilled to learn that most of the people in the house are interested in creative writing. Hugo isn’t interested in being a writer, but he mentions to Hannah that his girlfriend is in David’s class.

Later that day, Kate sits in on a class led by David (he invited her) and she sees that David has a new “star” student: Her name is April (played by Hannah Marks), and David seems to be in awe of her, which causes Kate to feel some envy toward April. Based on April volunteering to read a sample of her work in front of the class, April is a confident writer whose prose has a tone that’s edgy, sexually sensual and emotionally raw. It won’t come as much of a surprise (it’s not a spoiler) when Kate finds out that April is Hugo’s girlfriend.

There’s a scene in “I Used to Go Here” that could have been an outtake, but it seems to be in the movie because Jorma Taccone (of The Lonely Island comedy group fame) is one of the movie’s producers. (The Lonely Island members Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer are among the other producers of this movie.) In the scene, Taccone plays Bradley “Brad” Cooper, a former classmate of Kate’s who sees her by chance while she’s in Carbondale, and he invites her to have dinner and drinks with him.

During their dinner date at a local restaurant/bar, Brad turns out to be a jerk. He tells Kate that when he was in college, she was the woman he thought about the most when he masturbated, but he forgot all about her after all these years until he saw her again. Not long after the date starts, Kate finds out that Brad has also invited his “friend” Rachel (played by Kate Micucci) to join them on the date. Rachel and Brad then start making out in front of Kate, who sits and watches uncomfortably.

The rest of the movie involves circumstances that lead to Kate hanging out with the college students she met during her visit. The clique includes Animal’s girlfriend Emma (played by Khloe Janel). Even though Kate knows it’s kind of weird for someone in their late 30s to be partying with these college kids, the movie shows that in many ways Kate is trying to relive a time in her life when she was happier and more carefree. And seeing Dave again has brought up some unresolved feelings that Kate and Dave might have toward each other.

Movies with scenes of college students partying sometimes veer into slapstick comedy or over-the-top raunchiness, but writer/director Rey goes for realism throughout the movie, since everything that happens is entirely believable. “I Used to Go Here” also has some subtle commentary on the roles that women are often expected to have in society by the time they reach a certain age.

Kate isn’t the type of person who seems desperate to get married and have kids, but it does bother her that her career isn’t meeting the expectations she had when she was in college. There are multiple scenes in the movie where Kate is lauded as a “successful writer” by people at the university (usually the students give her this praise), but she humbly doesn’t see herself as a success, based on the goals she has for herself.

There’s also a well-written scene that shows some of the passive-aggressive cattiness that women can have toward each other when there’s envy or competition involved. Even though Kate feels like a “failure” inside, she tries to come across as superior to April when April shows Kate her work and asks for Kate’s feedback. In an attempt to deflate April’s confidence, Kate reminds April that she has less experience than Kate and that April isn’t a published author. Kate’s condescending attitude toward April has everything to do with Kate feeling that April has “replaced” Kate as David’s favorite student.

Kate’s self-esteem has also taken a hit because she’s feeling lonely after her breakup from her ex-fiancé Michael. Throughout the movie, Kate checks her phone to see if Michael has contacted her or to see what he’s posted on his social media. Some people might think that this behavior is pathetic, but a lot of people realistically do this after a painful breakup. (It’s pretty obvious that Kate was the one who was dumped.)

As the lovelorn but fairly optimistic Kate, Jacobs does a very good job with the role by making Kate emotionally vulnerable without being whiny or too needy. Jacobs has played these types of “smart but disappointed by life” women in movies and TV before, but that’s because she’s mastered the fine line between comedy and drama. The rest of the cast members are also quite good in their roles, with Clement once again showing that he has a knack for playing egotistical characters who are charming but might have sleazy ulterior motives.

“I Used to Go Here” is by no means a groundbreaking movie. However, it’s the type of movie that people can enjoy if they’re looking for a story where they see what happens during a few days when someone discovers how to reconcile expectations from the past with the realities of today.

Gravitas Ventures released “I Used to Go Here” on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020.