There’s been precious few films this year that have left me well and truly bothered at their end. Godzilla: King of the Monsters left me quite bothered by its misguided attempt to instil ethics to its monster-mash story. Yesterday bothered me in the way it squandered a neat idea with a flaccid script. But, it’s Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters that has left me the most bothered.
See, I’ve been itching to see this film ever since it was announced. As a huge fan of Forsythe’s last film, the searing, midnight black comedy Down Under, I was beyond excited to see what Forsythe would do with the zombie genre. When Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o was cast alongside Josh Gad, well, I was convinced that this would be a winner.
And, while Little Monsters certainly has winning elements – it’s a joyous little film about a school teacher trying to keep her students alive during a zombie apocalypse – it’s hampered by the obnoxious and unexpected lead performance from Alexander England. If you took a look at the poster for this film, you’d think it was Lupita who would be running the show, but nope!
Instead, when the film opens, we’re presented with sad sack manchild douche Dave (England). He’s a genuine dick of a guy who is stuck in juvenile-mode, and through an enjoyable montage we see his relationship with Sara (Nadia Townsend) fail completely. In need of a home, Dave shacks up with his sister Tess (Kat Stewart), and in a bid to win back his ex, he drags his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca) to her place in the middle of the night, only to find her having it off with her new boyfriend.
Look, I like Alexander England. I think he’s got great screen presence, and he genuinely shines as the witless co-lead of Down Under, but the obnoxious, juvenile, dick-focused moron that he plays here does him no favours. Worse, it does the film no favours. When Todd Phillips bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t make comedies anymore because ‘woke culture killed it’, he was whining about the lack of boorish blokes like Dave on screen. The kind of character who turns everything into an innuendo (‘in your endo’) and every action they make is done so with complete lack of self-awareness. These are the same guys who Phillips made famous in his Hangover films, and frustratingly, these are the same guys that you’ll find boozed up on the streets near the hottest nightclubs. They’re annoying to deal with in person, and equally so when they’re in a film.
It makes Little Monsters a real chore to get through for the first twenty minutes or so, but then Lupita Nyong’o appears as the luminous Miss Caroline, a pre-school teacher taking her students to a farm for an excursion. Due to reasons, Dave joins her on the excursion with Felix, and alongside Josh Gad’s entertainer Teddy McGiggle, they both leer and ogle Miss Caroline in disgusting fashion. It’s the old ‘woman as an object’ bullshit that was indigestible decades ago that makes parts of Little Monsters as rotten as the zombies that the characters eventually encounter.
What disappoints is the way that Abe Forsythe fails to condemn either Dave or Teddy for the way they obsess over Miss Caroline’s looks. I kept waiting for the moment where the acerbic and on point comedy from Down Under would make an appearance, and I was left wanting. In that film, Forsythe presented the racism with startling bluntness, but utilised that shock to reflect on how outdated, offensive, and uncouth the right wing drongos were, and in turn, created some of the most biting comedy we’ve seen in an Australian film this decade.
Instead, Little Monsters treats these idiotic men as endearing, too often siding with their manic dickheadishness, so much so that Dave is rewarded for being a tool by ‘getting the girl’ at the end. It’s clear that Forsythe is pulling from the Shaun of the Dead pool of middle-age moronic men succeeding in the face of a zombie apocalypse, but he’s amplified the absent minded aspects of Dave to the point of frustration, tarnishing what is genuinely great about Little Monsters. The well worn character arc of a dick of a man becoming a better person is so well worn and so tediously presented time and time again that it has become positively somnambulistic. There’s no water in that well anymore and filmmakers need to stop trying to get something from nothing.
I’m belabouring the point about the character of Dave being obnoxious simply because at the core of this film, there are two genuinely joyous characters who are exceptional to spend time with.
First up, Josh Gad’s Teddy McGiggle. I won’t spoil his arc, but needless to say, there is some of the finest comedic work from Gad here. He’s clearly enjoying his time on this gore-fest of a film, with every single curse word he spits out burning like acid, making his interactions with Miss Caroline, Dave, and the kids, all the more entertaining. A climactic escape sequence with Dave and Teddy is genuinely hilarious, with Dave getting to show an ounce of empathy and humanity that should have been the backbone of his character to begin with.
Then there’s the real MVP of the mix: Lupita Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline. If there’s one reason to watch Little Monsters, it’s Lupita Nyong’o. Her infectious joy and earnest optimism works so well in the midst of the chaos of the zombie outbreak, with her attempts to keep the kids occupied and distracted from the devastation occurring metres away from them being particularly inspired. I’m still perplexed as to why she wasn’t the main character in the story, and why Miss Caroline was saddled with Dave as a character to predominantly spend time with. Heck, if you took Dave out of the mix, the narrative would unfurl exactly the same way, just without all the bothersome dude-bro stuff.
I know I’m over complaining about one aspect of an otherwise ok film, but I’m only doing so because I expected more from Abe Forsythe and co. I expected Little Monsters to be as jam packed of observational comedy as Down Under was, but instead, it’s merely funny in parts, being dragged down by tired jokes and character tropes that should be put out to pasture.
This is beyond frustrating when the core aspect of a teacher going through the worst day of school ever makes for an exciting enough idea. Lupita Nyong’o almost single-handedly saves this from being a mess of a film, with her enthusiasm for getting violent and bloody being as smile-inducing as her ukulele backed rendition of Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off being bolstered by Josh Gad’s full bodied drunkard.
I wanted to love this film completely. I wanted to be taken away by its zombie-driven comedic antics. Most importantly, I really wanted to point to this film and say, yes, this is horror comedy done right. But instead, I’m left bothered and perplexed, leaving me to simply frown and shrug when it comes to recommending this film.
Director: Abe Forsythe
Cast: Alexander England, Lupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad
Writer: Abe Forsythe