SXSW Review: Lupita Nyongo’s ‘LITTLE MONSTERS’ is all heart, no bite

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Courtesy of SXSW.

James C. Clay // Film Critic

LITTLE MONSTERS

Rated R, 94 minutes.
Director: Abe Forsythe
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Josh Gad, Kat Stewart, Diesel La Torraca

AUSTIN – LITTLE MONSTERS is a well-intentioned zom-com from Australian Abe Forsythe (DOWN UNDER). He mixes a soft-to-the-touch plucky tone with yet another dark zombie film. The catch, this time, is Lupita Nyong’o is a kindergarten teacher who has to protect her students at a local petting zoo before the walking dead force the kiddos to trade in their juice boxes for a heaping plate of human brains.

While the LITTLE MONSTERS finds humor and heart in the story, it draws a lethargic reaction. It sounds heartless not to fall for an effervescent movie that’s aiming to please, but despite layered themes about becoming an adult and protecting your family, it becomes lifeless as the corpses inhabiting the screen. At this point, zombies are just a bit played out, even if you have an Academy Award-winning actor like Nyong’o noodling Taylor Swift on a ukulele.

The story doesn’t start with Nyong’o, but with Dave (Alexander England), an emotionally stunted guy who has yet to realize that being rebellious at 35 isn’t as cool and sexy as it was at 21. He and his girlfriend Sara (Nadia Townsend) argue constantly and his musical ambitions are aimless. Once they break up, Dave is on the verge of being homeless. Luckily, Dave has older sister Tess (Kat Stewart) and her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca) to shack up with. To make more of an effort around the house, Dave takes Felix to school where he encounters an angel in the form of a kindergarten teacher named Miss Caroline (Nyong’o). Dave is instantly bewitched by her infectious energy, so much so that he volunteers his time to chaperone the kids in Felix’s class on a field trip to a petting zoo.

Forsythe astutely highlights the pressures men put on women they are attracted to. It’s an unhealthy way to start a friendship, let alone an attraction. Nyong’o’s performance allows Miss Caroline to be an idealized figure, while still embracing her flaws and humanity. As the impending zombie breakout looms over the beginning of the second act, we’re introduced to Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), an absurd children’s show host who takes a van and travels around Australia performing for kids. McGiggle is revealed to be a disgusting human being, and Gad revels in the performance – even if it is a bit grating to stomach as the film trudges forward.

Abe Forsythe, right, directing Lupita Nyong’o in ‘LITTLE MONSTERS.’ Courtesy of Neon.

During his introduction at the film’s regional premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Forsythe said LITTLE MONSTERS was born out of fear for caring for his young son who suffers from all kinds of food allergies, much like the character Felix. The story is so rich with thematic elements that the zombie element could have been cut out of the film entirely. Then again, the zombies are what will sell the tickets.

This is the second feature collaboration between Forsythe and England, who worked together on the comedy DOWN UNDER. England is a welcoming presence on screen and is delightful at playing a doofus with the mind of a teenager. He is a lovable goofball, and Forsythe knows how to make him sympathetic in the end.

The back half of the film is fully dedicated to the zombie plot line, and it gets too repetitive to have any narrative thrust. We never feel the danger of the kids. All of the plotting seems like it’s coming to an inevitability, and Forsythe never fully reckons with blending the story he set up with the genre conventions at play. This is perplexing as to how Nyong’o got involved in this project. It’s worthy of her talents, but despite the winning charm of her back-and-forth dialogue with England, the film can’t be saved.

LITTLE MONSTERS has a skillful director working at the helm, as Forsythe seems to be able to make films that come from a personal place and build out from there. This a movie that looks like it could be made for kids, but the blood and guts distract from the story that is being told. While LITTLE MONSTERS is a crowd pleaser that will have many in stitches, there are a few roadblocks along the way.

Grade: C

LITTLE MONSTERS screened at South by Southwest on March 10. There are encore screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar on March 12 at 9:30 p.m. and Stateside Theatre at the Paramount on March 15 at 11 p.m. Visit sxsw.com for all screening information. Neon’s theatrical release is TBA.