Lupita Nyong’o in a zombie movie was all I needed to hear to make Little Monsters a top priority at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and it didn’t disappoint. The movie was the final item on the agenda of an 18-hour day. I walked in absolutely exhausted, running on the last little fumes of one too many cups of coffee, but within minutes, it was abundantly clear that Little Monsters was just the jump-start I needed.
The movie stars Alexander England as Dave, a musician without a proper job who’s got a terrible temper and is ultimately left homeless after a bad break-up. That’s when he turns to his sister (Nadia Townsend) who lives alone with her 5-year-old son Felix (Diesel La Torraca). One morning, Dave takes Felix to school and that’s when he first lays eyes on Felix’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), a stunning, super sweet, ukulele-playing woman with a heart of gold. When Dave gets the chance to accompany the kiddies on a field trip to a petting zoo called Pleasant Valley, he jumps at the opportunity to get a little quality time with Miss Caroline. But little do Dave, Miss Caroline, and the kids know, their day of tractor riding, farm animals and Taylor Swift songs is about to be ambushed by the living dead.
Little Monsters is festival midnight line-up gold. It’s gory, irreverent, hilarious, and downright electric. It’ll also likely play well as it continues its distribution journey, hopefully screening for packed theaters, but also as a highly re-watchable riot on Hulu. The premise is catchy and Nyong’o is truly phenomenal, but there’s only so far Little Monsters can coast on those two draws alone, and that’s where director Abe Forsythe deserves a major round of applause. He takes those two high-appeal assets and rather than lean on them, he brings so much more out of them by infusing Little Monsters with style, spot-on humor, and a surprisingly successful dose of heart, too.
Forsythe uses the comedy of Little Monsters to get laughs (of course), but the large majority of the jokes play into the absurdity of zombies attacking a petting zoo and also the big differences between Miss Caroline’s teaching methods and how Dave treats his nephew. Whereas Miss Caroline brightens the day with a Taylor Swift sing-a-long (good luck getting “Shake It Off” out of your head after this one), Dave straps on his electric guitar and fails to impress the class with heavy metal. Miss Caroline has the incomparable ability to calm the kids even as things get bloody. She walks the kids through a horde and encourages them to treat it like a game of tag, she tells them everything will be alright even though they’re surrounded by snarling zombies, and even when they’re seemingly doomed, Nyong’o works her magic and makes the kids feel safe and loved, and that warmth radiates off the screen to the point that it’s impossible not to fall for Miss Caroline, too.
But even though she’s a fun-loving and soothing leader for the kids, that doesn’t mean she has any problem beheading zombies and also putting a stop to potential human threats. In the movie she professes that as a kindergarten teacher, her top priority is to keep the kids safe and she sticks to that goal from start to finish, adjusting her methods as things get more deadly along the way. Nyong’o is a true force in her select action set-pieces and it’s also a joy watching her put Josh Gad’s character in his place.
Gad steps in as a popular children’s television personality, Teddy McGiggle. He’s as obnoxious and grating as they come when performing for the camera, and that quality remains but turns truly vile when his crew is consumed by the zombies and he winds up trapped with Miss Caroline, Dave and the kids. There’s no doubt some of the jokes and language used in Little Monsters will offend some, and a good deal of that more biting material comes from McGiggle. Dave is in a similar position at the beginning of the film, and I did catch myself wondering if he’d ever be able to shake off his bad behavior and redeem himself, but England winds up navigating his character arc quite well.
The young ensemble in Little Monsters is also quite impressive. Their timing and delivery is spot on, and a good deal of the kids in Miss Caroline’s class makes a lasting impression. (Special shout out to the putt-putt obsessed Max played by Charlie Whitley.) But, as intended, La Torraca is the shining star of Miss Caroline’s class. He is utterly adorable and will win your heart the moment he steps on screen. While cuteness is key to the role of Felix, the narrative does take the character on a pretty intense ride and La Torraca aces every single scene he’s in. Much of the movie is about Dave pursuing Miss Caroline and also Miss Caroline’s dedication to her kids, but a good deal of the heart in Little Monsters comes from Dave’s relationship with Luke, and England and La Torraca share a super charming chemistry that evolves in a subtle but extremely effective way throughout the film.
Are we talking A+ zombie make-up here? No. Does Little Monsters have an abrasive barrage of foul language? Certainly. Are there some hugely heightened and absurd moments in the movie? Yes! But Little Monsters knows exactly what it is and what it’s working with, and it plays into those qualities very well, keeping the energy sky-high from start to finish, and also slowly slipping in some real emotion. It’s a delightfully crude, wild ride with a standout performance that continues to prove Nyong’o can do no wrong, and also serves as a nice reminder of the importance of a great teacher. And as an added bonus, Little Monsters also rocks one of the best Star Wars references I’ve ever seen in a movie.