Lupita Nyong’o does not give herself lightly to a movie. In the nearly six years since winning an Oscar for her big-screen debut, 12 Years A Slave, she’s appeared in only a handful of films, some half of them strictly voice roles (and seemingly a quarter of them Star Wars).
So it’s not immediately clear why she chose to take on Little Monsters, a quirky-sweet and deeply silly little zom-com from Down Under. What she does do is elevate its modest charms and micro budget with her indelible turn as the sunflower-bright Miss Caroline, a kindergarten teacher so adored by her young charges that even when a zombie apocalypse breaks out in their bucolic corner of Australia — blame the American military, and some never-quite-explained testing facility — they’ll follow her anywhere.
She also has a new man-size fan in Dave (Alexander England), wayward uncle to Felix (the improbably named Diesel La Torraca), and a sort of lost boy in his own right. Freshly cut loose from his failing band and his trainwreck of a long-term relationship, Dave gloms onto Miss Caroline — “call me Audrey,” she pleads more than once — just in time for a field trip that coincides with a fatal breakdown at the testing facility.
Also present at the petting-zoo funplex is an American children’s television host named Teddy McGiggle (Frozen’s Josh Gad) — the kind of guy who operates at a pitch so amped you know there’s more than pixie sticks in the pockets of his polka-dot suit, and would gladly toss a 5-year-old into a tiger pit if it meant not getting a paper cut.
As the zombies lurch toward their destiny and possibly their dinner, pawing and moaning for her snack-size pupils, Miss Caroline snaps into action: soothing the kids with Taylor Swift songs on her ukulele one moment and fending off undead hordes with nothing but a pitchfork and her wits the next.
Can she save the children singlehandedly? Will dirty–Peter Pan Dave be redeemed? How much hand sanitizer can the desperate Teddy drink before he gets ethanol poisoning? The stakes are never really life or death, even when they are, but writer-director Abe Forsythe has clearly taken his lessons from Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and other flesh-rotting comedy jewels of the genre.
England is shaggily winning, too, as the bro who grows a conscience, and a heart. But it’s Nyong’o who makes Monsters worth spending 90 breezy, bloody minutes on; wielding her tiny guitar like she did a fateful pair of scissors earlier this year in Jordan Peele’s Us, she’s both a warrior queen and a fallible, believable human woman — and never not a movie star in every scene. B
(Little Monsters premiered at Sundance and begins streaming Oct. 11 on Hulu.)