“It’s my job.”
As a horror comedy, Little Monsters packs enough zombies and gut busting laughs to be lauded in both categories. What’s most impressive though is that the film doesn’t stop at the surface level, and that it uses this niche genre to really say something sincere – in ways both intentionally exaggerated and sometimes surprisingly simple – about the underlying story at its center. You might not think it or even expect it, but Little Monsters is a bloody love letter and an appreciative apple to all of the teachers out there, casting them as the everyday heroes they truly are. Teach a kid the alphabet? Impart some discipline? Keep them calm and alive during a zombie outbreak? It’s all part of this all too often underappreciated, overlooked, underpaid profession.
The film opens on the hapless Dave (Alexander England, delivering a great comedic performance) as he fights over and over again with Sara (Nadia Townsend), his long-time girlfriend who’s fed up with his childish behavior. She wants a kid, Dave can’t commit, they break up and he lands with a thud and a grueling hangover headache on his sister Tess’ (Kat Stewart) couch. Dave somehow missed the growing up part of adulthood, still relishing in the past of his long since dissolved band, and he’s the kind of man who feels the need to be coddled and cuddled. Despite his big and abrasive exterior, he really just wants to be the little spoon. Some moronic decisions create hilarious situations, and it all serves as a segue towards a path of possible redemption on a class field trip with his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) and his little miss ray of sunshine teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o).
Dave pines for Miss Caroline like a schoolboy, showing just how emotionally immature and impulsive he is from the jump, and it’s appropriate that she treats him as another child to keep in check instead of as her fellow chaperone. Things change as they finally arrive at the petting zoo tourist spot “Pleasant Valley” for the class day trip, conveniently and hilariously located next door to an Australian government research facility. The kids get to meet TV personality Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad playing a maniacal alcoholic), Dave combats the phony actor for Caroline’s attention, all while a life-threatening zombie outbreak centers in on their location. That’s when the the true colors of this mismatched menagerie get to show through.
Not since 2015’s criminally underseen The Final Girls have I watched a horror comedy that’s been as self-aware as it is well made. Little Monsters rounds out its many characters with personality and distinct traits, is thoughtfully written but rarely overwrought (one scene, referencing the “force” in Star Wars is earned but doesn’t quite click), and packs enough confidence to knowingly poke fun at itself. And that’s why I found writer/director Abe Forsythe’s film to be such a genuine joy. He wrote a dramatic comedy, directed it with many of the hallmarks of B-movie horror films, and ended up making one of the most delightfully irreverent pictures of the year. It’s fun, fulfilling, quite naughty, and doesn’t depend on blood and guts to sell the craziness. Everything works in harmony.
In one of the best and most telling moments I’ve seen in any film so far this year, Miss Caroline is tasked with leaving their safe-haven to get Felix’s epinephrine shot after Dave carelessly gives his deadly allergic nephew a dose of dairy. She leaves in a yellow sundress, after having played Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” endlessly on her ukulele to appease her little pupils, only to return covered in blood and guts after mowing through slow zombies to save her student. Miss Caroline tells them it’s just jam they can’t taste, Dave finally buys into her way of selflessness, and the final act of the film rounds itself out as a celebration of those who prioritize the future over their own present. In a time where school shootings seem to happen weekly and where many instructors are asked to work overtime without compensatory pay, Little Monsters shows that it takes a special kind of person to be a great teacher, and that their efforts can truly be life-saving. I for one know that I’ve had a few teachers I would’ve unquestionably followed to the ends of the Earth, and that they would’ve given life and limb to ensure my safety. If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.
“I’m still not quite sure how they did it.”
Rating: 4 out of 5