Directed By: Colm McCarthy
Release Date: September 23, 2016
Starring: Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Sennia Nanua
I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating here: I love a good zombie film. The subgenre more often than not pumps out dreck that's tough to get through, but I don't tend to mind wading through the muck to find a gem. They may be few and far between, but they're worth waiting for, as they're typically creative and engaging enough to prove that there is more than enough life left in the subgenre for passionate filmmakers to mine.
Colm McCarthy's The Girl with All the Gifts, an adaptation of M.R. Carey's 2014 novel, is one such film, one that caught me by surprise for its remarkable restraint. When George A. Romero defined the genre back in 1968 with his seminal Night of the Living Dead, he set a simple precedent that the best zombie films work less because of a preoccupation with shoving the undead down our throats and more because they put characters, stories, and messages first, and The Girl with All the Gifts lives up to that, using the "zombie apocalypse" as a backdrop for real human drama.
The setup is simple: The world has been devastated by a fungal disease that has turned most of mankind into "hungries," the film's version of zombies. In England, a group of survivors holed up at a military base, including Paddy Considine's Sgt. Parks and Gemma Arterton's kind-hearted teacher, Helen Justineau, keep watch over a small group of hybrid children who are infected by the disease to the point where they still hunger for fresh meat but otherwise present, physically and mentally, as human. Through studying these children, Glenn Close's Dr. Caldwell believes she can discover a cure for the disease, but when the base is inevitably overrun by hungries, Caldwell, Helen, and Parks and his men find themselves tasked with getting the last hybrid to safety: The smart, inquisitive Melanie, played by newcomer Sennia Nanua.
In broad strokes, it's easy to pass off the film's narrative as another saving the world story, but digging deeper, it's more about Melanie's own journey to figure out who and what she is in a world she's told is defined by only two sides: Humans and hungries. She is a true outsider, unable to exist among the braindead hungries but always kept at arm's length by the humans around her because of the risk she poses of slipping into her violent tendencies. Her hands are kept tied and she's fitted with a Hannibal Lecter-esque face mask as the group travels in search of safety, and the more she interacts with those that are both her captors and her saviors, as well as a world she's experiencing for the first time, the more her sense of self and identity solidify.
It's an interesting journey for a character whose POV we don't tend to get in these types of movies, and the film does an excellent job of keeping us rooting for her as an individual while never letting us forget her larger importance in the grand scheme of things. She can make or break humanity's survival, and the more awareness she gains about herself and humanity throughout the film affects the outcome when she's inevitably given a fateful choice by film's end, resulting in a gripping (and surprising) final stretch that's more than worth the wait.
Close, Arterton, and Considine - the latter of whom gets to turn what could've been a cliched military stereotype into something a bit more special - all do great work here, unsurprisingly, which makes it all the more laudable that the young Nanua manages to outshine them all as Melanie. Nanua does a fantastic job of balancing Melanie's sweet, thoughtful personality with the danger bubbling right underneath the surface, her performance going a long way in selling the hybrid girl's evolution throughout the film while keeping you guessing about where exactly her loyalties will fall. Whether it's to humanity and her friends or to herself, either decision makes sense in the context of what we see of and experience with Melanie, but Nanua never shows her cards until the time is right, helping gift the film with a conflicted, intriguing character whose actions stick with you after the film is over.
While the character work here is the real standout of the film, The Girl with All the Gifts still doesn't forget what genre it's playing in. It wears its influences on its sleeve, from Romero's claustrophobic Day of the Dead to Danny Boyle's stylish 28 Weeks Later to the acclaimed and similarly fungus-filled video game The Last of Us, but assembles those familiar elements in a way that never comes off as derivative (even though the film itself admittedly never feels like it's contributing something wholly new to the genre in return). Sequences like the fall of the military base, a tense attempt to move silently through a large, dormant herd of hungries, and an unfortunate soul's interaction with a group of predatory children work to highlight what's at stake in the world of the film while appeasing genre fans looking to get their blood pumping, and the imagery on display of an empty old world taking its dying breath before a new one takes over is quite effective, albeit nothing we haven't seen before.
To be quite honest, there's not much more to say about the film other than praising it for the simple fact it works so well. It's armed with an engaging story, solid performances, and great moments worthy of the genre it's playing in, and doesn't shy away from inviting its audience to ponder over questions about humanity and morality alongside its titular character, all of which stack up to help the film overcome any undermining sense of familiarity. It's a thoughtful trip worth taking whether you're a fan of horror, drama, and/or survival stories, a moderately slow burn with a haunting payoff, and if you're looking for more out of a genre film like this than an onslaught of jump scares and gore, see for yourself what The Girl with All the Gifts has to offer.
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