BFI London Film Festival 2019: Little Monsters
Having been in the spotlight since her 2014 Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave, it’s hard to believe that Lupita Nyong'o's first leading role came as late as this year, as both Adelaide Wilson and her truly terrifying ‘tethered’, Red, in Jordan Peele’s social thriller Us. Nyong’o’s visceral, full-body performances of both characters cemented her position as one of the most talented actors of her generation; a talent that brings Abe Forsyth’s zombie comedy Little Monsters to life.
Nyong’o herself describes the film as a “ZomRomCom”, and with so little material in this particular genre for reference, it’s impossible to know what to expect from it. As it turns out, this is probably the best way to go into a film, especially one which knowingly revels in so many cliches. The opening montage shows Alexander England’s Dave, stereotypical man-child that he is, arguing with his girlfriend in a variety of different awkward situations before they decide to call it quits and he finds himself on his sister’s sofa. The bond that he subsequently strikes up with his nephew Felix, bullied at school for his many food allergies and unconventional family dynamic (he calls himself a “test tube baby”), is touching and provides some genuinely funny moments, but the film really finds its footing once Felix’s teacher, Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline, is introduced and Dave accompanies the class on a trip to Pleasant Valley Farm. It’s at this point that Little Monsters becomes a zombie movie, and in the same way that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead did in 2004, the idea of gormless, brain-eating and half-dead humans becomes the focal point of both the film’s narrative and its comic relief.
While zombies providing laughs isn’t exactly a new concept, the satirical nature of Little Monsters’ witticism adds a topical layer to the action: the ever-relevant debate of whether on-screen violence inspires real-life horror is both a running joke and an underlying ideological theme. Felix plays a VR army-style video game that involves gratuitous shooting, something his mum is less than happy about, but rather than attempting to recreate the violence he sees, he is sweet, thoughtful and sensitive. The irony is also not lost that the aptly named Pleasant Valley Farm is located 500m from the military base from which the infected zombies escape. The comedy finds its place somewhere between gross-out - both Dave and Josh Gad, expertly cast as substance abuser/sex addict/child-hating children’s entertainer Teddy McGiggle, are as crude and vulgar as each other - and rom-com, playing into conventions of the genre through Dave’s infatuation with Miss Caroline.
He’s not alone; the camera is just as in love with Nyong’o as almost every other character is, from the affectionate children in her class to their parents. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine the film without the actress being involved. Little Monsters’ ideas are novel, the jokes land (minus a select few that fall flat) and the script is well-paced, but without Nyong’o’s presence, the film would undoubtedly be much less memorable. Nevertheless, it provides a successful entry into a niche genre that is earnest, charming and thoughtful while still offering laughs, if not highly sophisticated ones.