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  • Mitch Blatt

Sponges and Monsters: autism in Come Play

Jacob Chase’s 2020 movie Come Play stars Azhy Robertson as non- verbal autistic boy named Oliver. Robertson may not be autistic himself, but Chase's effort to portray authentic characters included extensive research and having Robertson spend time around autistic kids and their therapists and families. The movie’s perhaps too scary for young kids, but Common Sense Media says that kids 13+ can view it with their parents. In addition to a plot overview and rating the story and acting, we’ll be looking at the representation of autism and ways the actors and crew strove for authenticity on screen.

HEADS UP, SPOILERS AHEAD!


The Story of Oliver and Larry

Young Oliver’s parents have a strained marriage; with the mom dealing with meltdowns and therapy and the dad enjoying the more fun and easy times. Oliver enjoys watching shows on an iPhone and One night, Oliver’s watching his favorite show, SpongeBob Squarepants on his iPhone...and something’s watching from the other side of the screen. He finds a picture book app has loaded itself onto the phone—Misunderstood Monsters. It tells the story of a gangly creature/person named Larry who “gets made fun of because he is different” and “just wants a friend.” This creature eventually physically manifests.

Oliver’s classmates regularly bully him. At a sleepover, Oliver tries to hide his device from the other boys but when they find it, the Misunderstood Monster attacks one of the mean children, Byron. After Oliver tries to apologize to him via a SpongeBob episode, Byron says that Larry’s the one who hurt him. Larry also reveals himself to Oliver’s mom, Sarah, and tells her that he wants to take Oliver away. She tells Oliver’s dad, Marty, but he is skeptical...until he also meets Larry. To try and get rid of Larry, they smash the iPad.

Larry’s story shows up on Marty’s phone, and Larry puts him in the hospital. Larry makes his story appear on the family TV. All the lights flicker, and Oliver has a meltdown. Sarah angrily asks him “Can you just be normal for one second?!” She tearfully apologizes. Larry physically manifests and stalks them through their house. They hide under the bed; Oliver gets scared and makes noises, so Sarah hums the SpongeBob song to calm him. Larry shows up and chases them. Sarah offers herself in her son’s place. She says, “I love you. I love all of you.”


And Oliver looks her in the eyes.


The ending’s bittersweet—Byron and Oliver have formed a “people who’ve seen Larry” club “so no one has to be alone, like Larry.” Marty’s more involved in Oliver’s life with Sarah “missing”—but actually, she’s alive in Larry’s realm and gets to visit her son.


Representing Autism Onscreen: Azhy Robertson

When developing his film, Chase really went the extra mile for authenticity. He had a nonverbal autistic boy take a look at the film’s script for approval. Being that this is the case, I’m not sure why the director chose to have Oliver looking his mother in the eyes happen in response to her declaration of love. Lack of eye contact may not be present in all autistic children. Early in the film, Sarah says that her son doesn't look her in the eyes because he “hates [her]," but in reality lack of eye contact is down is different neurological wiring—eye contact can be overstimulating for autistic people. Creating a scene where this was apparently “cured” by a declaration of love didn’t feel realistic.

In the sleepover scene, the bullies see Oliver fidget with his hands. His mother doesn’t mind explaining it; she tells them that it’s called “stimming” and that he does it to calm himself when he’s overstimulated. Oliver’s stims can be brushing/rubbing his knuckles, spinning around, or humming the theme song to SpongeBob SquarePants (which, in a moment I found to be touching, she hums to Oliver while they’re hiding from Larry, to quiet him). Stimming can be a common behavior seen in autistic people.

In an interview with SciFiNow, Chase says that “I got to meet so many amazing kids and adults with autism. ... I would share the script with autistic kids and adults and ask them to tell me what I’m doing wrong, what I’m doing right.”

He says that he interviewed plenty of people, including one autistic man named Sam Rubin who used to be nonverbal at Oliver’s age, “Now he’s incredibly eloquent and he would read every draft of the script for me and give me all sorts of feedback and notes. I tried to just surround myself constantly with as much as I could so that I could create the most authentic portrayal.” One thing that Chase learned through his research is that autistic people have “special interests,” things that they fixate on or admire; SpongeBob is Oliver’s—Oliver shows an episode on his phone to try and apologize to (and in my interpreta- tion, bond with) Byron, and Larry offers Oliver a sponge in an attempted friendly gesture (like “I know youlike this sponge show, so here, have a sponge”).

Chase also says that “Whenever you’re writing a character that’s not like yourself, I think we have an obligation to... since we don’t have the lived experience, create the learning experience for ourselves as best we can. Then also surround the production team – we hired this amazing VFX house, Exceptional Minds, which only hires autistic adults to do the effects work. So we had them do a bunch of VFX on the film, so it was just trying to be as authentic as we could and try[ing] to be as inclusive as we could in making the movie.”


Overall

I applaud Come Play for starring an autistic character and for the innovative idea of a supernatural monster intersecting with technology. It’s got a good mix of supernatural horror and family (melo)drama. I give the film 5/5 for the story, 5/5 for the leads’ acting, and 4.5/5 for representation of autism. If you’re looking for a some- what-scary movie that has good representation of autism and messages of acceptance, then you’ll want to check out Come Play.


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