*NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.*
The Sundance promo image for horror-comedy Little Monsters features a blood-stained Lupita Nyong’o protecting a small group of children from what we know is some kind of zombie attack. Um, check please. The Oscar-winner’s career has been marked by serious dramatic performances; even her role in Black Panther is pretty damn straight, and I wanted to see her do something that was way outside of her comfort zone. Let’s just say Nyong’o doesn’t disappoint.
I knew Little Monsters was always playing for laughs, but I had no idea just how far down that road it would go. Directed by Abe Forsythe, the film lays into the absurdity of zombie attacks and never looks back. While definitely gory and maybe a tad bit scary for kids, it’s more cheesy than anything else and that gives it a certain charm. It just takes a while to really get going. Alexander England plays Dave, a slacker and former band guitarist who is having a tough go of things with his girlfriend. All they do is fight, and finally, he just decides to call things off. But he still has hopes of reconciliation, and after a disastrous attempt to win her back with help from his 5-year-old nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca), Dave hits a new low. But staying with his sister proves untenable, as well, because he’s such a bad influence on Felix. When Dave meets Felix’s gorgeous, saintly teacher Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), he tries to win her over by volunteering to chaperone the kids on a field trip to a petting zoo. There, all Hell breaks loose when zombies…well, break loose, from a military compound nearby.
This, of course, gives Dave his chance to be a better uncle, and hopefully get in good with Miss Caroline. Nyong’o really shines in the role, although she’s probably the one who is playing her character the straightest. When the zombie outbreak occurs, Caroline tells Dave the most important thing she must do as a kindergarten teacher is protect her kids, and that’s what she does. She actually goes further in doing that than expected, taking a Life is Beautiful approach by convincing the kids they are playing a game, rather than fighting for their own survival. It’s an interesting wrinkle to add to the zombie hilarity, which finds the undead chowing down on people, humans, and proving strangely adept at following along to music. Speaking of which, you’ll never get Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” out of your head after this, so just be prepared for the maximum cuteness of Nyong’o and a bunch of kids singing it, a lot.
Josh Gad is the sourness tossed into all this sweetness. He gets the film’s funniest role as Teddy McGiggle, a kids’ TV show personality as over-the-top annoying as Barney. When the zombie attack traps him with everybody else, his vile side emerges and we see how terrible he truly is. When he starts chugging hand sanitizer for the alcohol kick you see how far the TV star has fallen, but it’s only just the start. He’s the source of the film’s most vulgar lines, and if there’s anything that keeps this film from being fairly wholesome (despite all the gore) it’s the character of Teddy. But he’s also necessary as a counterbalance to Dave, who starts off pretty unlikable, too.
The movie belongs to Nyong’o, though. As Miss Caroline she plays an angelic figure, almost too good to be true, which is exactly why Dave falls so hard for her. But we also see the lengths she’ll go to protect the kids, and it gives Nyong’o some cool shit to do. The best action sequences belong to her, as she fights through hordes of zombies and realizes she’s pretty good at killing them, better than you’d expect out of a schoolteacher. It’s in large part to Nyong’o’s performance that we get a sense of the stakes involved. If Miss Caroline fails, everybody is going to die.
Little Monsters is one of those Sundance movies I don’t see enough of. It’s not trying to be anything more than what it is, which is a chance to watch Lupita Nyong’o decapitating zombies. If that floats your boat, this is a film you’ll want to take a stab at.