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The 2021 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 28 - Feb.3, in Park City, Utah

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"Little Monsters" - Review

In a festival full of artistically layered and creatively structured films, Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters stands out by telling a classic three-act narrative with predictable beats that lead to an ending we’ve all seen before. Usually, that would not be a compliment in my book, however, this film executes it’s ‘save the cat’ style story to perfection. It gives the audience everything they want in a film. It is chock-full of humor that has the crowd boisterous throughout, mixed with gruesome violence, love, and despair. It does not try to torture your soul, instead, it aims to please and entertain, which it does quite well.

The story follows Dave, played by Alexander England, a hapless stoner, recently dumped by his neurotic girlfriend because of his refusal to give up the past, and his fear of having a child. The man is addicted to video games and pornography, with absolutely no direction until he meets Miss Caroline played by Lupita Nyong'o, while dropping off his nephew at Kindergarten. In a vain attempt to attain her attention, he volunteers to chaperone a field trip where chaos ensues when zombies, yes zombies, invade their excursion.  

Nyong'o, of course, delivers a show-stopping performance. It’s hard to tell this was her first attempt at comedy. The film puts her wit on full display, as she holds her own amongst seasoned comedians. She utilizes her award-winning acting skills to carry a narrative on her back that could easily be a joke at a festival like Sundance. She controls the energy of every scene and does something not many females do in this genre, she keeps the men in check.

Lupita is surrounded by outrageously hilarious comedians. Alexander England’s ability to morph into a total dunce allows the audience to laugh at what they ought not to be. Meanwhile, Josh Gad plays a disturbingly ill-willed children’s television character that rapidly fires off improvised insult after insult in the direction of anyone in the same frame as him. The comedic chemistry between Gad and England is electric. They have a plethora of gut-busting scenes together which energy gets balanced out by Nyong'o’s hard-nosed ‘straight man’ performance. In the Q&A, Nyong'o spoke on how truly hard it was to play the ‘straight man’ during the most outrageous scenes. I can only imagine how difficult it was given how no one in the audience managed to hold a straight face for longer than a beat.

Leaving the venue had unparalleled energy. There is something about a well-executed three-act structure that really appeals to mass audiences. In film school, they drill this approach into filmmakers to the point that the more artistically inclined seem to really want to escape the form. You can really see this effect in most of the Sundance films. A lot of the filmmakers actively try to disguise their structure in a way that feels more authentic or artistic. This film, however, fully embraces the classical form. It does so quite successfully. It has everything you would expect from a mainstream, box office film. It has violence, a ‘get the girl’ throughline, a well-placed call to action, a clear second act turning point and a convenient conclusion. It does so, not in a way that feels stale, but in a way that somehow still feels refreshing. This ultimately comes down to the filmmaker's decision to hand over the keys to Lupita Nyong'o and the enduringness of the children’s innocence.

The best factor of the entire film is the irony built around children’s innocence. Too often do we want to shelter children from the brutal truth of the world. In the face of flesh-eating zombies, Miss Caroline protects the children’s innocence by playing them their favorite Taylor Swift song on her ukulele. She tells them they are simply in a fun game and that the invasion is all part of the planned field trip. The question arises of how healthy it truly is to keep children away from the brutal realities of the world.

The theme of the film really came to light in the Q&A when Josh Gad gave the audience a powerful closing statement. He said that too often do we treat ourselves like children, hiding from the monsters that live in our society. He brought up his close friend, Jussie Smollett, who had been viciously attacked by racist MAGA supporters earlier that day. He reminded the audience that we cannot hide when incidences like his happen, we must face our fears and openly talk about the monsters that live in our world or they will never be conquered. Eventually, that is what the characters had to do, face their fears in order to escape the grasp of evil.

 

Written by: Cameron Lui

 

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