Sundance Film Review: Lupita Nyong’o is a Ray of Sunshine in ‘Little Monsters’

2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: One of the most unexpected delights of this year’s festival came in the form of the Australian zombie flick, “Little Monsters.”

The horror comedy introduces Dave (Alexander England), a typical, out of work slacker who recently split up with his girlfriend and currently resides on his sister’s couch. He helps out by taking his five-year-old nephew to school, where he meets the kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o), and is instantly smitten. She is all smiles and happily bright dresses and Taylor Swift songs. Without thinking, Dave volunteers to help chaperone the class field trip to a farm.

The farm happens to be next door to a US Army Testing Station where a zombie outbreak begins. Miss Caroline and Dave have no choice but to protect the class from being eaten by zombies. They find themselves holed up in a souvenir shop with American television host Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a children’s TV star who hates children. All of this begs the question, which is more frightening? Zombies? Or a roomful of little kids in need of protection and entertainment?

After serious dramas and last year’s foray into action, Lupita Nyong’o tries her hand at something new. She is charming as the perpetually perky teacher whose only job is to protect those children at all costs. It is a lot of fun to see Nyong’o like this. Her comedic timing is perfect. We can only hope this leads to even more comic roles in the future. But the role isn’t just funny. In fact, she plays with a straight face and gets to show off some of her combat skills, too.

Also making a departure from his normal roles, Josh Gad is hilarious. Most of his dialogue is a steady stream of improvised profanity and selfishness. He unleashes with such liberty, it’s almost as if he’s been waiting years to say what he really thinks. He possesses the enviable gift of crafting the perfect insult, and no one is safe from his tirades and tantrums.

Alexander England may technically be the lead here, and he is sufficiently charming enough to be mistaken for a lost Hemsworth. But he is easily overlooked as the focus shifts to his more intriguing co-stars. England wisely doesn’t try to compete for screen time. He is best when he grants them room to take over shared scenes.

England reunites with writer/director Abe Forsythe. The two previously worked together on “Down Under” in 2016. During the Q&A after the film, Forsythe told the capacity crowd he was inspired to write “Little Monsters” after his son had an angelic kindergarten teacher that deserved to become an onscreen hero. Using the type of humor that made “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” big hits, Forsythe’s film does, indeed, turn a kindergarten teacher into a hero.

Forsythe plays with familiar zombie movie tropes, making small changes and additions along the way. The lengths they went to shield the young actors from seeing anything age-appropriate just makes it that much funnier. The dead include tourists and children, soldiers and farmers. And this may be the first movie ever to feature a zombie with Down Syndrome.

Fans of the genre will certainly be pleased with this clever addition. It is a bit too funny to fully be a horror film, but it does have the requisite blood, guts, and gore to deter the squeamish. This is practically guaranteed to be a big hit among cultish movie fans.

“Little Monsters” will be distributed by Neon and Hulu. They have not yet set the release date.

GRADE: (★★★)

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