The Girl With All The Gifts is meatier than your average zombie tell-all. Much like how 28 Days Later brought a militant, survivalist perspective to infection-based terror, director Colm McCarthy does cinematic justice to Mike Carey’s novel of the same name. This isn’t an “OMG we’re trapped and have to survive” horror flick (not totally). Jump scares play second-fiddle to a child, her volatile situation and McCarthy’s building towards something bigger. Enjoy a genre watch that has more to offer than decapitations, gore and petty exploitation. This is undead drama with the heartbreak to sustain. Coming-of-age meets flesh-tearing monsters. Why the hell is this being buried in late February?
Young Sennia Nanua stars as Melanie, said girl with said “gifts.” Civilization has been crippled by a fungal disease that turns people into cannibalistic drones (aka zombies), but Melanie represents hope. She’s a hybrid child who harbors infection, but still displays the ability to think freely. This means that Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) can study Melanie and others like her, from the safety of a British military base – until the base is overrun by “hungries.” Caldwell and Melanie escape, accompanied by Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Melanie is seen as a liability to some, and a unique ally to others. No time for arguments though, not if you want to survive.
The biggest standout has to be Nanua’s lovable performance; this infected girl who understands circumstantial despair, and still risks everything for her human captors. She’s a caged lab rat, yet when given freedom, doesn’t turn on those who kept her chained. Nanua so wonderfully retains a human optimism in her time of desolation, balancing respectful addresses with outbursts of violent neck-chewing. She must wrestle “hungry” urges while understanding the pain she inflicts – that alone would be a death sentence for weaker constitutions. Yet, Nanua remains poised, sophisticated and innocently charismatic. She has every right to be angry, but still puts the wellbeing of Ms. Justineau and Kieran (Fisayo Akinade) above all-else. Focus on the greater collective, because there’s a goodness that still resides in people – something we shouldn’t forget.
It’s Melanie’s relationship with the “hungry” outbreak that makes The Girl With All The Gifts such a delight. Because of her tainted system, she’s ignored by feral “hungries.” This lets Melanie wander around and explore to her heart’s content, while providing a crucial service to remaining survivors. That a child can be considered a savior is such a refreshing take on typical hero archetypes, especially when said heroine should be tormented by a life unlived. We get these brief moments of whimsy as Melanie takes in a world outside of her concrete classrooms. To her, dilapidated skyscrapers and hollowed cities are a thing of wonder, even though all we see is catastrophic destruction.
These moments of flourishing life are juxtaposed against Earthly damnation, especially once a gigantic spore tree is discovered (if the spores release, even worse things happen). McCarthy etches a dystopian vibe with horror thrills, along with equal strength of character. Paddy Considine’s sergeant is empowered by a growing trust in Melanie, while Glenn Close teeters on the edge of villain-with-a-cause. Gemma Arterton and Nanua share a compassionate bond, in that Arterton is the only one who sees a small girl standing in front of her, not some genetic misfit. Even Fisayo Akinade’s supporting role works better because of Nanua’s friendly demeanor, gutting your heart when she becomes worried during his solo supply run. No one character is defined beyond stern military types, but Nanua provokes the best out of each character – a testament to her own performance.
Some sluggish midpoints may overburden the film’s story, yet The Girl With All The Gifts does well to rebrand a typical horror scenario with lasting appeal. Call them “hungries,” do what you must, but this is still a zombie flick – and a thoughtful one at that. Performances remain the film’s biggest advantage, but one shouldn’t ignore Colm McCarthy’s ability to find beauty in doom-and-gloom. Horror plays into a mindless scourge that represses free-thinking, while a pint-sized savior dares to remain in control. It may not speak as clearly about social issues as another new release this week (Jordan Peele’s Get Out), but it’s still relevant genre work with a vocal motivation. Sennia Nanua’s marvelous debut is just the cherry on top.
The Girl With All The Gifts is a thoughtful apocalyptic subversion, but the biggest praise goes to young Sennia Nanua's brilliant acting debut.