The Girl with All the Gifts is a mashup of countless dystopian sci-fi movies, zombie thrillers, survivalist stories, the references as numerous as the walking dead populating director Colm McCarthy’s bleak future. But it also, somehow, forges its own path through a genre, or genres, that have been done and redone and done again in the 21st century. For all the familiarity holding it back, there is a raw compassion and curiosity in the performances, and a story that understands the value in restraint when it’s needed.
When we first meet Melanie (Sennia Nanua), the chipper pre-teen and the focus of the story, she is waiting patiently in her prison cell. We don’t know what’s wrong with her, or why she’s in prison, or why when the armed guards come to get her for school in the morning they are so frightened of her as they strap her head and hands into a wheelchair; but we find out soon enough.
Melanie is one of a handful of children infected with a disease. She is a “hungry” as the film calls their zombies, but she isn’t like the ones we soon see. Her and the children toe the line between zombie and human, which is why they are in this prison. They’re subjects for a sympathetic scientist, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), working on a cure. The children seem innocent, incapable of carrying out a single-minded bloodlust. That is until a stern Sergeant, Parks (Paddy Considine) shows us what they’re capable of.
An invasion closes in on the compound and Melanie is freed by her compassionate teacher, Helen (Gemma Arterton), and the two escape the quick-twitch hordes with Dr. Caldwell and Parks in tow. It’s a clever combination of personalities, none desperate, all strong, but all with varying levels of understanding of, and need from, Melanie, who really can’t help the fact that the slightest whiff of blood in the air turns her into a jaw-clicking killer.
The rest of The Girl with All the Gifts is a survival story as the group travels across a dystopian version of England that is nothing more than an empty world. There are no fires or semblances of society, just bleak, overgrown lifelessness. McCarthy and cinematographer Sion Dennis paint a familiar picture of a world gone to shit, but they do so in a way that allows the film to bloom. Shots are small and cramped early in the compound, then only gradually do we see the breadth of destruction when our traveling party ventures into the wild. Shots get bigger, broader, more detailed. It’s not a showy look at a world that’s ended, but a gradual one.
This is a coming-of-age story for Melanie, albeit in a wholly unsettling context. The screenplay, from Mike Carey (based on his novel) is utilitarian in nature. Just about every scene is a reference to a film any fans of the genre will recognize. There are echoes of 28 Days Later and its sequel, Children of Men, The Walking Dead, and too many other films to name in this space. And it also does better what other films – World War Z for example – attempted and couldn’t quite nail down. Those chattering zombies were unintentionally funny, these are quite terrifying.
The direction and the performances, and some truly eerie moments (seeing the zombies in a catatonic state, standing and waiting for their next feeding frenzy, is especially effective) give this film its own identity. It’s beautiful sometimes, often brutal. Considine, Close, and Arterton all put it the type of stellar work we’ve come to expect from them, but of course it’s Nanua as Melanie that steals this show. She delivers a complex performance with the weight of any veteran actor, and allows her physicality to tell her story where it’s needed.
There isn’t anything particularly new in The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s a genre that has been mined to the deepest depth of creativity. So, at this point, it’s what directors, actors, and screenwriters do with their familiar story that will set it apart. This one, in its stellar craftsmanship, manages to forge its own path for the most part.
The Girl with All the Gifts is in theaters this Friday.