Apparently there’s been something of an indie resurgence in taking on the sometimes saturated market of the undead. Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan commentary, The Dead Don’t Die, hit earlier this year and Little Monsters’ writer/director Abe Forsythe obviously got the same memo. Whereas Jarmusch’s indie ditty was bleak and rambling, Forsythe has packed every minute of Little Monsters with accessible humor, heart, and Lupita Nyong’o in one of the standout roles of the year.Making its Quebec debut at Montreal’s Fantasia Fest, the horror comedy centers on Alexander England’s unemployed bum, Dave. Living in the past and wishing for the glory days of his old band, Dave quickly finds himself on his sister’s sofa and entwined with the life of her young son, Felix (Diesel La Torraca), who happens to have a gorgeous, sunny, and sweet kindergarten teacher named Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o).
From the outset, Forsythe brings something a little different to the proceedings with a hilariously intense (and bravely long) cold open showcasing just how patently annoying and toxic Dave can be. Though his redemption arc from loser to hero is at the core here — similar to the original zom-com, Shaun of the Dead — the supporting characters are interesting and the script is self-aware enough that it never feels like Dave is the be all and end all, especially once we meet Felix and Miss Caroline. La Torraca and Nyong’o are the clear stars here, with the young child actor staking a claim as the cutest and funniest child star this side of Jacob Trembley, and the Black Panther performer cementing her action star status. For his part, England plays his role as manchild in a way that invokes far more empathy than it should and that makes his (slightly routine) hero’s journey roundly satisfying.
So far we’ve avoided the undead elephant in the room, the zombies themselves. They’re your classic lumbering kind brought to life with some solid practical effects and makeup work. The conflict kicks off when Dave offers to chaperone a school trip with Miss Caroline and Felix’s class to a rural farm which just happens to be situated next to an Australian army testing base. You can imagine just how well that setup goes for everyone involved, and before the audience and the sweet (tender) children know it, all zombie-hell has broken loose. Other than that it’s better to know as little as possible as Little Monsters’ biggest charm is in the surprising humor it imbues into every moment, carefully weaving between pop culture commentary, light satire, and emotional heft.
Lupita Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline is a ball of sunshine, and her dedication to the children that she loves so much offers up the perfect opportunity for some killer action sequences whose only fault is that there aren’t more of them. Honestly, if you find a scene more enjoyable than Lupita stylishly chopping off zombie heads with a shovel all whilst wearing a primary colored A-line dress we’ll be surprised. Forsythe does a great job injecting the script with enough memorable laughs that our screening was still talking about them in the dark streets of Montreal hours later. Many of those moments belong to La Torraca as Dave’s Darth Vader-obsessed nephew and his rare authentic, hilarious, and never annoying child presence.
There’s a gaping hole in this review that should belong to Josh Gad, but the truth is that his role is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in. But be assured it will likely become not only a genre fave but also a popular cosplay. The rest of the cast is made up by a group of thoroughly enjoyable child actors who, thanks to a smart conceit and the brilliance of Miss Caroline, offer up a new perspective on the zombie apocalypse.
There are only a couple of complaints that could be levied against Little Monsters. One centers on the use of a couple of unneeded fat jokes and ableist slurs to really highlight just how much of a dick Dave is (we didn’t need them, we already know he is). The second is that the movie is a little simple, but the outstanding cast, whip smart script, and uniquely bright outlook on life (and death) make it a must watch for fans of romance, zombies, and Lupita Nyong’o kicking butt.