A sweet and crudely entertaining addition to the zombie genre
With the zombie genre being as crowded as the undead hordes they often portray, you have to come up with a unique take to set yourself apart. Enter Little Monsters, where a curious blending of sweet and crude tones, a championing of kindergarten teachers, and the star power of Lupita Nyong’o help it stand out from the pack.
Dave (Alexander England) is your stereotypical man-child. After an explosive end to a relationship following his refusal to commit, he ends up moving back in with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and young nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca). A corruptible influence, a school run forced on Dave marks his introduction to kindergarten teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o). In one of many efforts to impress, he volunteers to help chaperone a school trip to a nearby petting zoo at Pleasant Valley Farm. It’s a destination located next to a secret military base where experiments are underway dealing with tissue regeneration. You can guess what happens next. It’s a simple and convenient setup to throw these unsuspecting kids into peril, and a chance for Dave to experience some personal growth.
It’s a pretty predictable redemptive arc, Dave’s bad traits being showcased in an expletive laden opener and rammed home throughout most of the film. It’s a little heavy handed, so much that it seems necessary for the film to bring in a character who turns out to be even more awful (Josh Gad as kids’ TV host Teddy McGiggle). This and the innate affability of Alexander England do temper such concerns as the film sees events draw out their true nature, and offer up what they deserve from it. Miss Caroline offers the perfect counterpoint (and learning opportunity) to these more vulgar characters. Lupita Nyong’o attacks her role with gusto, not unlike her twisted double turn in Us, which also premiered at this year’s SXSW. While in Peele’s sophomore effort she was a maternal figure to two children, here she’s protective of an entire class. It’s the sort of performance that gives credibility to genre fare such as this, calm and dignified, sweet and tough in equal measure. There’s a nurturing glow about her, a darling kindergarten teacher with floral yellow dress and a ukulele in hand. You’ll adore her instantly, even more so when she picks up a shovel and unleashes on some zombies that get between her and her kids. As their teacher, she is charged not just with preserving their lives, but their innocence too, shielding them from the zombie terrors. It gives the film an interesting spin, where she frames the real life threat as a game. The zombies trying to grab living flesh are playing a game of tag. Blood is strawberry jam, and so on. Using rhymes and ditties to keep the kids focuses and aware of the rules of ‘play’. The kids themselves are great, adorable, precocious, often showing superb comedic timing, and a wide-eyed innocence that makes the premise work.
It’s clear that writer/director Abe Forsythe, whose last film was the hilarious and sociopolitically loaded Down Under, has channeled personal experience into the film. The Q&A after revealed much of the plot stemmed from his own relationship with his son and the feelings that came from handing over a vulnerable 5 year old to his kindergarten teacher — a transition of trust, and a value of the responsibility of care all teachers take. Little Monsters is one of the most ‘pro-teacher’ films I’ve seen in a long time, and it lies at the core of the sweet center of the film, along with an opposites-attract angle for Miss Caroline and Dave. The pair are miles apart in their approaches, from tone and language to musical choices used to soothe the nerves of the kids–thrash metal vs. Taylor Swift, for instance. Each have their own learning arc entwined with the other. Forsythe manages to place these things at the center of a undead outbreak on a petting zoo, which was always going to be entertaining. A gory, expletive-ridden venture, that occasionally crosses the boundaries of good taste, while still offering a surprisingly touching addition to the zombie genre. It’s the latter that sets it apart, and it owes a debt to an incredible turn from Lupita Nyong’o who captivates as well as decapitates.