Today’s assignment, class, is compare-and-contrast “Come Play,” now in theaters, with “Noise in the Middle,” now streaming.
They’re both thrillers about haunted children. Their shared hook? Both the kids are autistic.
“Come Play” has a name cast and a few decent chills. But for my money, “Noise in the Middle” has a better villain, a more interesting kid and a better grasp of (movie) ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).
Veteran character actor John Mese is a difference maker here. He plays a Seattle divorce attorney always on the edge of seething. We meet this impatient, short-tempered dad as he’s taking his daughter Emmy (Faye Hostetter) to Canada, turning down the chance to put her in “a home” to take a chance on an experimental treatment for her disorder.
“It’s what Sarah wanted,” Richard says. And Sarah’s wishes are important, because she died just a few weeks ago. A friend’s lent him his three story modernist mansion near the clinic trying this magnetic brain scan therapy.
Testy Richard’s about to get a crash-course in autism. Nurse Zandra (Juliette Jeffers, quite good) picks up on the fact that Richard was never that involved in his moaning, rocking and wandering-off-prone daughter’s care. She doesn’t have to hear him bark “Emmy, I don’t have TIME for this” more than once.
Dr, Helmond (Jim Holmes) explains the “communications disorder” nature of autism, that Emmy is “always saying something” even though she can’t yet speak. “We just have to hear it,” to “sort out the noise in the middle” between her efforts to communicate and Richard’s inability to hear it.
Richard, sweating a case-gone-wrong back at the office, dosing himself with whisky and Xanax, quickly regrets his decision to not commit his child. And Emmy, just starting to learn the text-to-talk phone app that will bridge their gap, has something alarming to tell him.
All those giggling kid noises, the skittering up stairs in the night? There are ghosts around, so there’s nothing for it but to talk to the crystals-and-astrology shop owner (Tom Konkle, fun) and figure out what’s afoot and what to do about it.
The frights come from simple effects — nightmare sequences, “Mom” (Tara Buck), glimpsed in a mirror. An evil future incarnation of ill-tempered Dad is in there, too. They’re not big jolts, although the movie does manage suspense in making us fear for Emmy, and fear what Dad might be pushed into doing by the spirits in the house.
While this film makes more of an effort to explain the disorder, the autistic characters “break character” here and there with excessive eye contact, and in the case of “Come Play,” a need to turn its victim into a brilliant child who has agency in his fate thanks to a lot of magical movie thinking.
Both films should have made more of an effort to show the terror as the autistic child experiences it. Because as neither thriller wholly comes off, that shared lapse seems the most obvious way both fall short.
Emmy’s peril, which she cannot fully articulate, should have more of the focus. Making it all about Dad’s credulous acceptance of “spirits” and ghosts, and his breakdown under the strain, just isn’t as interesting, no matter how much seething he does in the process.
MPA Rating: MPA Rating: unrated, violence, drug and alcohol abuse
Cast: John Mese, Faye Hostetter, Juliette Jeffers, Tara Buck and Tom Konkle.
Credits: Directed by Marcus McCollum, script by Glen Kannon and Marcus McCollum A Terror Films release.
Running time: 1:32