Dave has decided to get over his recent breakup by seeking refuge in his nephew Felix, accompanying him on a school trip, among other things, to be able to get closer to one of the teachers, Miss Caroline. Everything seems normal, at least until a zombie invasion breaks out that will threaten Dave's plans. New horror movie icon Lupita Nyong'o nails it in this blend of comedy and gore.Written by
Sitges Film Festival
Consistently funny and very heart-felt, anchored by yet another superb Lupita Nyong'o performance
Kind of like a cross between Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Little Monsters is a hilarious and unexpectedly moving piece of work. The storyline is unquestionably clichéd - a loser who cares only about himself is forced to protect others, realising he's been a loser and vowing to change his ways (with the help of a good woman, of course). We've seen this narrative template countless times before. But what's extraordinary about writer/director Abe Forsythe's film is how he's able to create likeable characters and elicit genuine emotion from an archetypal structure (the zom-com) that seemed to be in its death throes. Anchored by yet another exceptional performance from Lupita Nyong'o (building on her astonishing, Oscar-worthy work in Us (2019)), Little Monsters is heartfelt, light-hearted, and consistently hilarious, with a very well-modulated comedy/character ratio.
Dave (Alexander England) is a man-child whose life is going nowhere. Unemployed and recently separated from his girlfriend Sara (Nadia Townsend), he moves in with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca). Taking Felix to kindergarten one day, Dave meets and becomes infatuated with Felix's teacher, Miss. Caroline (the always radiant Lupita Nyong'o), and when a school trip to Pleasant Valley Farm petting zoo requires an additional chaperone, Dave leaps at the chance. However, an accident at a nearby US army base releases a horde of zombies, and so, trapped in the zoo and determined not to upset the children, Caroline must try to convince them that everything they see is part of an elaborate game.
The thing that struck me most about Little Monsters wasn't the zombies or the comedy, but the emotion. In the hands of a lesser director, the whole film would be utter schlock, but Forsythe never allows the humour to dissipate, constantly tempering the sentimentality. And it does get very sentimental at times, but it's a sentimentality that feels authentic, grounded in something real, and, most importantly, it feels earned, particularly in relation to Dave's arc, which could easily have turned into turgid melodrama. Speaking of emotional authenticity, it's worth noting that, bizarrely, Forsythe was inspired by personal experience - his five-year-old son has a lot of food allergies and had never been out of his care, so when he started in kindergarten, Forsythe was understandably anxious. However, the teacher was able to allay his fears, making him realise just how important kindergarten teachers are. The visit to the petting zoo was also inspired by a real-life visit to the same petting zoo as seen in the film. The zombies came later, and this is an important point, as the zombies are a means to an end, a vehicle for much of the comedy, but with no real importance vis-à-vis what the film is trying to say. And what is it trying to say? That children can confer strength and, with their uniquely innocent perspective, offer a non-judgmental and often exceptionally perceptive view of the world.
From its opening montage (scenes of Dave and Sara arguing in various locations), the film's humour is sarcastic yet reverent, and this tone is maintained for pretty much the entire runtime; it does encourage us, for example, to laugh at how much of a loser Dave is, but it always maintains an element of warmth, never crossing the line into what could be considered cruel disparagement. The comic structure definitely has a vibe of La vita è bella (1997), with Forsythe getting a lot of mileage out of Caroline trying to keep up the illusion that everything is a game - zombies chasing people is a game of tag; the longer the children all survive, the more levels they will complete in the game; the blood all over Caroline after dispatching a group of zombies is jam. Even funnier, at one point one of the kids complains because she thinks the zombies look too fake.
The film also features one of the best sight gags I've ever seen, involving Dave and a photo of Caroline...or is it? This got the biggest laugh at the screening I attended, and really, I don't see how anyone could find it unfunny. There's also a brilliant scene involving Felix and a Darth Vader outfit, which includes him trying to use the Force in a very awkward situation, later telling Tess, "I am your father mummy", a line which made me laugh more than it probably deserved.
In terms of the acting, Nyong'o owns the film - her performance is physical, emotional, peppy, authentic, lived-in, and when the time comes, she's fierce, unflappable, driven, with charisma to burn and a real sense of psychological verisimilitude that renders Caroline a believable, relatable person, complete with emotional interiority and human fallibility. Before filming began, Nyong'o studied the Australian education system, spending time in classrooms, and talking to real kindergarten teachers, and it shows - there's a naturalism to her performance, nothing is forced (she also learned to play the ukulele). Additionally, her comic timing is absolutely spot on, a talent never even hinted at in any of her previous work - one wonders is there any genre she can't do (she's even flawless in the film's few pseudo-action scenes, and her singing voice is pretty damn good too). I honestly just can't say enough about how good she is.
Aside from Nyong'o, the film's other stand-out performance is from Josh Gad as Teddy McGiggle, a famous children's entertainer from the US. Gad plays McGiggle as completely over-the-top and has an absolute ball doing it. Introduced as a kind of hyperactive but generally affable Mr. Rogers, we soon learn he's a hysterical, cowardly, self-obsessed, alcoholic, sex-addicted misogynist, who hates children, and who bitterly despises his comedic companion, a hand puppet named Mr Frogsy. This ridiculously over-the-top list of character failings gives Gad huge room to ham it up, and boy does he lean into the opportunity - whether it be tearfully confessing to Dave that he's addicted to having sex with single-mothers; drinking hand sanitizer for a buzz; screaming at zombies, "I had your mother", before tearing out their throats (with his teeth); or telling the kids that they're all going to die. Gad captures it all perfectly, in a performance that's the inverse of Nyong'o's grounded realism.
If the film has a problem, it's probably the character of Dave. We're asked to like him from the get-go, but his introductory scenes don't make it easy, as he comes across as a self-important and lazy slob, who believes in his own magnificence so much, he's lost sight of everything else. Of course, that's how he's supposed to come across, as it sets up his redemption arc later in the film. Some people, however, will undoubtedly sour to him to the point where that arc seems perfunctory, even cynically fake, which would undermine pretty much the entire second and third act. Personally, I didn't dislike him to the point where I couldn't get on board with his narrative, but I'd understand people who did.
Little Monsters is an absolutely deranged movie, in the best possible sense of the word. Graphically violent and extremely funny, where its greatest merit lies is in its heart - rarely have I seen a film so sentimental that avoids becoming turgid, with Forsythe sidestepping the pitfall of overwhelming everything with jaded syrupy nonsense. Nyong'o grounds the whole thing, Gad chews the scenery magnificently, and Forsythe nails the comedy/zombie balance, with virtually every joke and sight gag landing to one degree or another. The personal nature of the story's origin seeps through at every moment, and it's this sense of grounded emotionality which makes the film so good. The zom-com subgenre is almost completely in the rear-view mirror, but Forsythe has been able to craft an emotionally genuine (and genuinely emotional) film that actually has something to say, and that has fun saying it.
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