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We Are Little Zombies
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by Jay Seaver

"There really is no one way to grieve!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "We Are Little Zombies" is the sort of movie that needs four kids for its story but only has enough attention for a couple of them, with most of that going to the one most designed to get on a person's nerves. That's not always ideal, to be honest, but it is something that a person can get used to over a couple hours, especially when the filmmakers are committed to being the right sort of creative and energetic. Director Makoto Nagahisa attacks grief and the increasingly self-aware people trying to deal with it in a way that may be a lot for people multiple times the age of its 13-year-old heroes, but even they will likely wind up impressed.

It opens with four kids meeting at crematorium, all of them having been orphaned in recent days and unable to summon the tears that their relatives think they should be shedding. Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) is the narrator, a bespectacled video-game maniac whose parents have bought him every new and retro console imaginable and seemed to be on the verge of divorce before a bus accident ended their attempt to reconnect permanently. He invites lollipop-sucking Ita (Satoshi Mizuno), sneak-thief Yuki (Mondo Okumura), and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), the inevitable girl who is taller and more serious than the boys, back to his apartment, but they are soon running off on their own, coming to a revelation when they hear the homeless singing in a garbage dump.

That's when they decide to become pop stars and the film becomes a musical, and for a while it is at its most solidly entertaining best there. The songs are tremendously catchy, and whether Nagahisa et al are just following pop culture or trying to make the satire incisive to a global audience by having them blend Japanese and English, the effect is the same sort of targeted cynical undercurrent to their poppy beat. The story veers into show-business satire while also having a clear eye on how these aren't just generically exploited children, but ones who are being promoted and monetized specifically on the loss of their parents, with the adults involved trying to split the difference between melancholy and "negative". It seemingly ends almost as quickly and arbitrarily as it begins, and plays all the stronger for having Ikuko play the ringleader rather than Hikari.

Hikari can be kind of a lot to handle, after all, spending much of the movie providing constant, petulant narration, and that the soundtrack and on-screen graphics for much of the film, especially his introductory segment, plays like it's pulled straight from his first-generation Game Boy with the volume brightness cranked to the highest levels. It's something one can wind up appreciating more than actually liking, although it does camouflage impressive work by young actor Keita Ninomiya, showing off a realistic combination of rage and confusion even as the very premise of the film suggests he's not showing anything. It's a lot of him to carry, enough that the audience is grateful for Sena Nakajima to help carry the load; her seemingly aloof, straight-faced delivery will have her amusingly frustrated at the boys being dumb along with a fair amount of smart, eccentric cool. She's still able to show that Ikoku is not really the girl who diminishes her own pain to help buys feel better, though, quietly processing things her own way.

There should be lots of "their own ways" here; Nagahisa seems to have an endless reserve of images and concepts that fit in with his basic idea of kids dealing with grief through video games and music, and he stitches them together a lot better than many with similar ambitions do. The crew is clever in getting them in there, from the kids moving through an overhead shot like the players in an 8-bit game to ruthlessly pre-empting certain meta-theories about what's really happening. His characters don't spend a lot of time on the internet, but they act like they've been absorbing information through that sort of fire hose, enough so that occasionally breaking the fourth wall or self-analyzing seems natural.

Two hours of that can be kind of exhausting, and there are definitely times when one might wish that Nagahisa picked and chose what to include a little more carefully, or maybe gave some of Hikari's story to the underused Yuki and Itu. Even with that being the case, "We Are Little Zombies" is still very impressive; there isn't a whole lot like it, and most of what is seems like it can either have kids in the center or be of interest to them. This movie feels like it could do both, although I'd like to hear from some actual tweens think of it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33114&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/18/19 07:00:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Makoto Nagahisa

Written by
  Makoto Nagahisa

Cast
  Keita Ninomiya
  Sena Nakajima
  Satoshi Mizuno
  Mondo Okumura



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