“Little Monsters”: Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Lupita Nyong’o protects a group of children on a field trip from a zombie attack in her first foray into comedy in this horror-farce that packs enough comedy and heartfelt emotion and acts as a love letter to Kindergarten teachers everywhere.

A warm-hearted kid-filled comedy film at heart is shaken, stirred and blended with bloody zombie violence, cascades of scabrous sex talk, witty comedy and above all, strong performances by three talented leads. Australian writer-director Abe Forsythe hardly wastes one minute without trying to top himself when it comes to gross-out humor, send-ups of genre tropes, a surprise Taylor Swift cameo, and with this Sundance midnight offering, the additions of Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o as ever-resourceful school teacher and Tony-Nominated Josh Gad as a loathsome kiddie TV host.

The film starts out with slacker-musician Dave (Alexander England) who only excels at two things in his life: zombie shooter video games and fighting with his girlfriend (in fact the film starts out with a hilarious montage of every time Dave and his girlfriend have fought… and it’s mostly because she wants a child and he does not). With a predictably ensuing breakup, Dave crashes at his sister’s Tess (Kat Stewart) and begins corrupting and caring for his hilarious (and adorable – I actually got to meet the child actor and give him a high five) and precocious 5-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca).When Felix’s kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) needs a last minute chaperone to step in for their field trip to Pleasant Valley Farm, a combination of a petting zoo and mini-golf course that just happens to be located next door to a U.S. Military base experimenting with regeneration (cause why not?), Dave decides to step in to impress and help Miss Caroline.

What ensues is horror-comedy satire, similar to Edgar Wright’s 2004 comedy Shaun of the Dead. But what makes Forysthe’s film stand out compared to other zombie comedies is Nyong’o’s grounded performance as Miss Caroline. The Oscar winner invests her teacher with such ferocious love for her students; she has two priorities: keep the class alive and spare the children with the trauma of knowing how close they are to death: she pretends that zombie survival is a game of tag, the blood on her dress is merely strawberry jam and makes mini-golf a form of self-defense for the kids. And by the end of it all, Nyong’o survives the film with her dignity intact – her deadpan humor and the sight of her in a yellow print dress and frog backpack while hoisting a shovel over her shoulder and marching off to decapitate some of the zombies made the entire theater burst into applause.

On the contrary: for his part, England is both funny and pathetic as a completely uncensored child-man who is only after two things – love and sex; but Forsythe develops his arc into a lovely self-discovery story in which Dave begins to understand the innocence and humanity of children and why they are (usually) so wonderful adding a whole new dimension to England’s portrayal of an otherwise lazy bum. Gad is hilarious and good to have around as the all-purpose, concealed creep and his casting as a kiddie TV host who in reality hates kids is both corrupted (hello Bad Olaf) and committed, reminiscent of his role in the Tony-Award winning musical The Book of Mormon and adds a whole new dimension to the dynamic between the three leads.

At its heart, Forsythe’s horror-farce is a love letter to Kindergarten teachers which he has actually mentioned in every interview and Q&A he has done after screenings. His own son suffers from various food allergies and according to him, it was difficult for him and his wife to send their kid off to Kindergarten, fearing that his teacher would not know what to do or how to help him when the time arose. Luckily for him, he was blessed with a teacher that no matter what, put her students first above all (the inspiration of Nyong’o’s character) and he began developing his screenplay around her with the idea of translating his son’s allergies into the metaphorical zombies seen on the screen. To him, the only way to make the movie watchable and bearable was to create the story as a comedy and to incorporate the children in almost every shot of the film. And the pic, in its 94 minutes, builds enough good will and comic energy throughout to carry it to a fun conclusion and my expectation is that we have a new cult classic on our hands.

Now call up your Kindergarten teachers and thank them!

JAKKAWI: A-

“Little Monsters” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight Category. At press time, Neon/Hulu acquired the distribution rights to the film for a late Summer/October release date.

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Director: Abe Forsythe.
Screenwriter: Abe Forsythe.
Music by: Piers Burbrook de Vere.
Cinematography: Lachlan Milne.
Production: Made Up Stories, Snoot Entertainment, Screen Australia, Protagonist Pictures.
With: Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Josh Gad, Disel La Torraca.

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