the_girl_with_all_the_gifts_4Year: 2016
Director(s): Colm McCarthy
Writer(s): Mike Carey
Region of Origin: UK

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Digital, Color, 116 mins

Synopsis: A scientist and a teacher living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie. (Source)

When it comes to the zombie genre, virtually every aspect has already been covered. The undead a primal metaphor exploring societal fears and reflecting humanity’s darkest instincts, we get it. That said, Colm McCarthy’s smart thriller, The Girl With All The Gifts, proves that there’s still more to explore if you know where to look. Filled with complex characters, tight storytelling and fantastic set pieces, the film stands apart from its contemporaries, featuring one of the best performances of the year in Sennia Nanua.

Set in a future where a fungal infection has turned most of the population into the undead, a military installation outside of England houses a number of children who are being kept for study. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a part of that group, children born by eating their way out of their infected mothers. Though partially undead, these kids are still capable of thought and speech. The children are given a makeshift education by a caring woman named Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who reads to them the myth of hope found in Pandora’s Box. Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) is the leader of the installation, which is headed scientifically by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close). Their goal is to create a vaccine for the infection, and Melanie may hold the key. Forced to escape when their base is taken over by a zombie horde, these characters race to secure a new future, knowing all too well that they’re a species on which evolution is closing the door.

Despite the dark premise, McCarthy handles things with a tone and accessibility which are exciting, balancing out the story’s tragedy in a way that never becomes overly depressing or pessimistic. There’s an innocence to the children that is the film’s heart, further explored through Justineau, who uses storytelling to educate them and perpetuate hope. Never has a film of this nature so deftly handed the promise and uncertainty that a child’s life stands for. In Melanie, the genre finds a new symbol of optimism, as she sets her own destiny and grows into a truly dynamic character.

the_girl_with_all_the_gifts_5Another unique aspect is how the story takes the fungal approach, rather than a viral infection. There’s a realism explored here, with the film looking at the ways this type of infection would spread – dozens of these creatures would die, sprout plant life and out grow seed pods which would ultimately spell the end if they were to ever open. The story appears to take place in a world where this has been going on for almost a decade (give or take), with the zombies themselves fantastically designed and replete with mold, growths, etc all over their bodies. It’s a fresh perspective with a nice mythology rooted in science.

Much of the film’s light comes from the exceptional performances of its cast, especially Sennia Nanua’s Melanie. Melanie is a young girl who just wants to be liked, but is an outsider. Nanua’s performance gives the character a strength and intelligence that is restrained – even at the darkest moments, Nanua smiles and evokes a genuine fascination with what is around her. Her performance is a stark contrast to the violence and terror, and without her, the film is nothing. As Justineau, Gemma Arterton brings great sincerity to the role, and her chemistry with Nanua creates a powerful bond between the two characters. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Parks is the textbook example of fearing what we do not understand, leading to much of the story’s conflict and human perspective. As Dr. Caldwell, Glenn Close seeks to restore humanity, making her character someone who is doing everything they can to hold on to the past. She’s wholly relatable and has a grip on the film’s genuine drama.

Ultimately, The Girl With All The Gifts is about looking to the future, centering around an evolutionary leap that has chosen to manifest itself in a very violent way. Colm McCarthy’s sense of optimism is one that can’t be ignored, culminating in an ending that really hits the mark. By all accounts, this is everything the genre needs – rich characters not burdened by nihilism, who find ways to control their destiny and choose how to live their lives in an imperfect world. In that way, McCarthy’s film is an atypical, ambitious survival story that’s enlightening and focuses on hope above all.