The Centrepiece Gala had me at ‘ukulele’ and ‘zombies’. Abe Forsyth’s zom-com doesn’t take itself too seriously and is full of laugh-out-loud dialogue and devastatingly winsome performances from Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England and a class full of kindergarten kids.
The main protagonist is David (England). The opening credits roll over his remorseless arguments with his girlfriend, mainly around his reluctance to have kids but also because he is a self-absorbed manchild who can’t take responsibility for his failures and actions. Moving in with sister Tess (an under-utilised Kat Stewart), he is confronted by the open friendliness of her five-year-old son Felix (Diesel La Torraca) and is dismissive of the seriousness of his many food allergies.
Felix’s kindergarten teacher is Miss Caroline (Nyong’o) and David is quickly smitten by her Doris Day perfection. He volunteers to be a last-minute parent helper on the class excursion to Pleasant Valley Farm, mainly to impress Miss Caroline. It is only when a zombie outbreak from a nearby military facility threatens them all that he is forced to make his actions match his words.
It helped that Forsyth introduced the film as he talked about his first feature, Downunder, being triggered by the birth of his son and Little Monsters being a love letter to his son and the magnificence of kindergarten teachers. His son has life-threatening allergies and relinquishing care for him for the first time to his kindergarten teacher was a significant moment. It’s easy to see his son’s experience of restriction, bullying and a belief in his fragility in the character of Felix. The heroism ascribed to Miss Caroline, who remains chipper and dedicated to the well-being of her class even amidst a zombie apocalypse, is that of the archetypal early childhood teacher.
The film is an unusual mix of family-friendly humour, verbal crudity and gory, slapstick violence. It mostly works and perhaps indicates a target audience of older teens and parents; both demographics will connect with the realities of being or parenting kids. Some characters jar and seem tone-deaf, from the stereotypical Asian tourists to children’s entertainer Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad). The dichotomy between McGiggle’s cutesy stage persona and his deeply cynical and angry real self is an expected trope but has a viciousness that sits uncomfortably with the wry warmth of the rest of the film. The way both he and David talk about women is appalling and is not really mediated by convenient narrative repercussions and redemptions.
Most of the characters are cartoonish with little chance to do more than illustrate a stereotype and, if you can overlook some of the more egregious examples, it mostly works. There is enough warm humour woven through to distract from the occasionally grating moments.
“Sir! It’s a ukulele! Sir!” The treat for me, as a ukologist, was the theme of ukulele as a universal weapon, as “small and fierceful, brave and peaceful” as Amanda Palmer says in Ukulele Anthem. As any uke player knows, the ukulele is “a portal through which only happy people can pass” and it is used well to illustrate just this. It is solace and social connector, a handy tool in an apocalypse and the perfect excuse for a singalong.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.