It’s extremely strange watching a film with kids that isn’t made for kids. It’s strange because Little Monsters tries to toe the line between being an edgy zombie flick and a feel-good romantic comedy, loaded with an entire ensemble of kindergarten children. At times, these minors are necessary, and at times, you could call them the third wheel. Either way, this is a film that’s gone under the radar and deserves a little more love and appreciation.
Dave (Alexander England) is a struggling musician who ends up at his sister’s house once his long-term relationship with his girlfriend is over. An immature adult at best, he becomes enamored by his nephew Felix’s school teacher, Ms. Caroline, played by the wonderful Lupita Nyong’o. He wiggles his way into chaperoning Felix’s school trip to a farm, hoping that soon enough, he’ll be in Caroline’s good graces and her panties. What he doesn’t see coming is a zombie outbreak from a US military research base nearby, threatening the lives of the kindergarteners and his newest crush.
By and large, Little Monsters follows Dave’s character arc from self-centered man-child to caring and understanding human being. While this narrative has its endearing moments, especially when he interacts with his nephew, the juicier role falls to Nyong’o. In the beginning, Miss Caroline is by all accounts a very thoughtful and kind-hearted teacher. She’s primed to be the damsel-in-distress needing to be saved from a zombie army, facilitating Dave’s path away from adult asshole. But this isn’t the case.
While Dave does get plenty of opportunities to be a better person, the more grueling and gory responsibilities fall to Nyong’o, whether that’s sticking pitchforks in the undead or coercing grown-ups who won’t follow the plan. If you need to retrieve a backpack in the middle of a pack of zombies, she’s your gal. If you need a person to threaten someone with a broken piece of porcelain, she’s still the right gal. If you need a calming presence for a sea of hungry and tired kids, look no further than Ms. Caroline. The film manages to subvert conventional expectations at many points, using Miss Caroline as the first and most prominent case study. She’s a superwoman in the flesh.
The other case study comes in the form of Josh Gad’s Teddy McGiggle, a beloved children’s TV personality who finds himself at the same farm as Ms. Caroline’s class while on tour. People manifest their true nature during times of crises, and McGiggle proves this in the worst manner possible. A washed-up actor who couldn’t crack into the major leagues, he’s a child-hating alcoholic and literal mother fucker who wound up with a well-paying gig at the lowest rung. In many ways, he’s perhaps a bigger monster than any of the undead, as his destructive ego shines bright for all to see. Little Monsters provides each of its leads an opportunity to be better or be worse, bringing them to a crossroads and giving these characters some control of their fates. Are you going to do the right thing or something monstrous? Gad’s chameleon-like character wakes you up at every turn, livening up the script with his colorful choice of actions and words.
Yes, the film can be tonally jarring, operating on two different frequencies at various times. When the adults are by themselves, the crassness and cuss words multiply, and when the kids are around, a better example is obviously set with thoughts, words, and actions. Little Monsters won’t break any new ground for the zombie film genre and be remembered for generations to come, but it will serve up some brilliant moments sprinkled throughout its 93-minute running time, most of them courtesy of Gad, Nyong’o, and a knack for consciously flouting tropes in the zombie, rom-com, and kids movie genres.