SUNDANCE review: Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters
“One, two, three, eyes on me!” “One, two, eyes on you!”
All eyes are on the teacher when it comes to caring for our children. It’s not enough that they educate them, saturating their heads with the developmentally appropriate curriculum and filling any gaps from previous grades and preparing them for the the following year, teachers are also stewards of their social development and self esteem. For seven-plus hours a day, they are the be-all-and-end-all to dozens of souls. They are the granters of permission, bandager of boo-boos, and receptacle of tattles. They are monitoring for signs of bullying, domestic abuse, and learning disorders. They are trained in the administration of epi-pens, procedures for on-site intruders (armed and unarmed), and de-escalation of entitled parents. It takes an extraordinary person to do all this and still make each child feel talented, worthy, valued and safe. Every little mind is vulnerable to the vapid, selfish, predatory nature of a demotivated, uncaring society that is closing in on them. Little Monsters is an Australian Horror-Comedy about how good teachers - the best teachers - stand between a vacuous present and a hopeful future and fight to protect children’s brains at all cost.
Dave (Alexander England) is not what you would call a ‘kids-person.’ He is entirely too preoccupied by maintaining his too-cool-for-school, starving musician persona. He’s holding on to his youth by the skin of his teeth, and he’ll commit rock ‘n’ roll suicide before he lets his dweeby, five year old nephew, Felix, put him in the compromising position of being the adult. When his sister eventually guilts him into dropping off Felix at kindergarten, Uncle Dave finds the motivation to at least feign a passing interest in the kid.
Felix’s homeroom teacher, Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyongo), is a vision in an A-line skirt - a total ray of sunshine. He watches gobsmacked as she beams at each of her primary students, shepherding them through their morning routine with the grace of a ukulele plucking angel. The little ones look at her with the loving reverence that is generally reserved for Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), the silly-dancing, polkadot celebrity child entertainer - a pop culture crossbreed of a Wiggle and Dipsy the Teletubby. Dave looks at her like Cindy Crawford if she shopped on Modcloth. When one of the chaperones for the class trip to Pleasant Valley Farm drops out last minute, Dave is all too eager to earn a gold star and volunteer.
Dave’s objective of winning the heart of Miss Caroline (“Please, call me Audrey”) becomes deferred, however, when one of the farm’s neighbors from the Top Secret US Army Facility next door pops by for an afternoon snack. I’m telling you right now, it’s not Mr. McFeely. Before the kiddos can finish singing “Ee-Ei-Ee-Ei-Oh,” their field trip is ambling with with moaning, rotting grown-ups munching the pet-a-pet goats and looking at them really weird. Miss Caroline says it’s all an elaborate game of tag, but Dave knows these kids are in for an entirely different sort educational experience.
To her kindergarten class, Miss Caroline has everything under control. They just have to get through the whole confusing “Don’t Let the Yucky People Get You” game, sing a few Taylor Swift hits, and later there will be putt-putt golf. Underneath it all, she is scared shitless. Nyong’o plays the two sides of Audrey Caroline with a deftness and buoyancy that is captivating. It doesn’t matter if she is wielding a shovel or a uke, she is killing it literally and figuratively. England plays the hapless rocker, Dave, with humor and heart. He mopes into the film like an entitled, overgrown man-child whose self-absorption is so complete that this failed rocker can’t see the one adoring fan in front of him, his nephew. Over the course of the film, circumstances call in him to put on his grown-up pants and rise to the occasion and his growth is dynamic and grounded.
Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters is a romp. The more action-y horror elements are equal parts visual gags and mild gore, punctuated by Josh Gad’s Teddy McGiggle - a soppy, vulgar obstacle with a dirty conscience and a dirtier liver. The use of practical effects adds to the B-movie, slapstick-y charm that makes the film infectious. The peril for the children is ever present, but their innocence and cluelessness is so well guarded that while the danger is unyielding, there is a part of them that is unquestionably safe, which frees up the moral senses to get lost in the levity rather than bother yourself with worry and dread. To put it in “Of The Dead” terms, this film is way more “Shaun” than “Dawn.”
When it comes to being overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated teachers are expected to make like a Swifty and “Shake It Off.” Little Monsters perfectly captures the nobility, selflessness, and strength of character that it takes to be a good teacher, especially when the future promised to their students is increasingly bleak. Miss Caroline is the amalgamation of all of the childhood teachers that we loved best. She’s pretty, bubbly, creative, enthusiastic and gives each child a focused, precious piece of her attention, but Dave learns that it is just a persona. When she puts on her yellow dress and bumbag of band-aids and epi-pens, she is Superman putting on the cape and losing the specs. Miss Caroline is a symbol of what an adult can and should be - in control, capable, and invulnerable. That’s all adulting is, really. Letting go of your childish baggage and being the best example of ‘you’ you can be. It is stepping up and realizing it’s your turn to say “one, two, three, eyes on me” to the next generation.
Little Monsters was acquired by NEON and Hulu on the very first day of the Sundance Film Festival, which means we can have our eyeballs peeled for a theatrical release as well as a place on the streaming platform sometime in the near future.