In a 2009 episode of the comedy series Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand ambassador to the US Murray Hewitt (Rhys Darby) encounters representatives from the Australian consolate. The Aussies immediately begin ribbing Murray in an aggressive manner, but whenever Murray takes offense, they flash a self-satisfied smile and insist that they’re only joking. “We’re just having a laugh, mate,” they assure Murray, socking him in the arm to demonstrate how fun this all is.
If you told me that one of those ambassadors went on to make the Australian horror comedy Little Monsters, I would believe it.
Those marketing the movie would have you believe that Little Monsters is a warm-hearted oddity in the vein of frequent Conchords collaborator Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnorok). The promotional materials prominantely feature Lupita Nyong’o (Us, Black Panther) dancing with a ukulele in hand, her luminous smile undiminished by the blood splattered across her yellow sundress. Trailers suggest that Little Monsters is about her character Miss Caroline defending the impressionable minds and digestable brains of a kindegarten class from the zombie hoard that interrupts their field trip to a petting zoo.
That’s a truly unique premise in the over-crowded and notoriously difficult horror-comedy sub-genre, and Nyong’o plays the teacher with a rare form of earned optimism, a heroic kindness rarely seen in films of any stripe.
But Miss Caroline is not the main character of Little Monsters. She is just a supporting character in the redemption arc of the real protagonist, Dave (Alexander England, Alien: Covenant). The washed-up guitarist of a long-defunct metal band, we meet Dave unsuccessfully busking for money and bitterly arguing with his girlfriend, activities implied by the movie’s tinkling score to be ironically charming.
But make no mistake, Dave is a jerk. After breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, Dave crashes with his sister Trish (Kat Stewart) and her son Felix (Diesel La Torraca). When single working mother Trish makes unemployed Dave a pizza he doesn’t like, our hero sneers and insults her. When Trish asks Dave to stop cursing in front of Felix, our hero swears louder about her immaturity. When Dave sees a disabled child at Felix’s school, our hero refers to him by the r-word.
This isn’t to suggest that Nyong’o’s Miss Caroline is unimportant to the story. Little Monsters needs her in the movie to motivate Dave. He finds her so attractive that he’s willing to lie to her and volunteer to chaperone the doomed field trip in an attempt to impress her. And when Dave suddenly becomes a good person (a turn the film executes with a level of cynicism usually reserved for studio bankrolled Christmas films), Miss Caroline is there to reward him with a kiss.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a flawed protagonist, and redemption stories have always been the stuff of great art. But we’ve seen this type of mediocre white guy time and time and time again, executed with far more skill and insight than writer/director Abe Foresythe does here.
The focus on Dave galls in part because the movie isn’t really interested in redeeming him as much as it is giving us a wedgie and then saying, “Aw, just kidding, mate.”
This flippant attitude is evident in the film’s main joke structure. In one of the earliest and most effective gags, a scene opens with a close-up on a photograph of Miss Caroline. In the reflection of the picture frame, we can see Dave in the throes of onanist passion. The next cut shows Dave putting the photo back on the wall, revealing that the picture was actually a class portrait, and that both Miss Caroline and her kindegartners were unwilling partners in his self-abuse.
Little Monsters repeats this formula for 90% of its jokes (taking time, of course, for two “oblivious Japanese tourist” jokes that would have been lame even in the 80s). An adult says or does something horrible, the shot lingers to shock the viewers, and then the camera reveals children standing by. The movie wants these jokes to be transgressive, but the repetitious structure renders them predictable. So when Miss Caroline hands Dave a guitar to entertain the children, you can bet that he’ll sing an inappropriate metal song. When a children’s entertainer played by Josh Gad breaks down in a flurry of curses — you guessed it, he’s talking to kids.
Such humor becomes tiresome after 30 minutes, making Nyong’o’s grace notes all the more welcome. The scene in which she lulls to sleep her terrified children by singing “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” might be among the best I’ve scene this year.
But even then, the movie needs to validate Miss Charlotte’s abilities by including insert shots of Dave being moved, because this is Dave’s movie. And after her song is done, Little Monsters needs to get back to Dave being a jerk before quickly reassuring us that he’s just joking, mate.