One girl is the cure for the zombie epidemic, in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’. The near future humanity has been all but destroyed by a mutated fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries”. Only a small group of children seem immune to its effects. At an army base in rural England, this group of unique children are being studied, subjected to cruel experiments by biologist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). Despite having been infected with the zombie pathogen that has decimated the world, these children retain normal thoughts and emotions. The children attend school lessons daily, guarded by the ever watchful Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). But one little girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), stands out from the rest. Melanie is special. She excels in the classroom, is inquisitive, imaginative and loves her favorite teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). When the base falls, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. Against the backdrop of a blighted Britain, Melanie must discover what she is and ultimately decide both her own future and that of the human race. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ is directed by Colm McCarthy, and is rated R for disturbing violence/bloody imagery, as well as adult language.
In 2017, it’s obvious that the zombie genre has run amock. At this point, fresh ideas to stimulate and energize this subgenre are few and far between, but occasionally an injection of pure adrenaline is injected, and we remember what was once great about these kind of movies. Out of the smoke comes ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’, a European horror offering lifted from the pages of the book by the same name. Perhaps literature still inhabits all of the fresh and unused in ways that film is truly lacking on these days, because this movie was dreary, yet inspiring. It’s a reminder that the best and truly most frightening angles in horror are the ones that we find great fear in within our own psyches, and this post-apocalyptic wasteland where youth reigns supreme is a call-back to the days of ‘Children of the Corn’, as well as ‘Pet Cemetery’. While paying homage in essence to some of those classic pictures, ‘Gifts’ is a movie that carves its own reputation by changing the perception in and around European horror.
First of all is the appreciation of a story that doesn’t overcomplicate itself by giving a typical narration intro describing how we got to this bleak disposition. There’s a lot of mystery and cryptic bypassing that surrounds the first act of this McCarthy’s film, and I dig that because his method of storytelling never requires the audience to be spoon-fed that important story arcs. This is a director who has more than enough faith in his viewers, so he lets them paint the pieces, and this is by no means a difficult picture to paint. The film is to be applauded by slow-peeling the layer of exposition. We know by the title that the younger cast maintain this constant level of importance to the overall story, but through the eyes of this teenage girl, we learn step-by-step why she is so important. I commend any film that invests in the capability of child actors, especially ones that are good at captivating audiences, but this film does all of that without needing the tired, cliche scripts that plague the young adult point of view. The film continuously built to a crescendo of pulse-setting scintilation, concluding with a finale that constantly reminds us that hope waived goodbye to this set of characters long ago. A message that the audience has to endure over-and-over through some ever-changing landscapes and backdrops.
If there is some weakness to this story, it’s more so in that defining of the rules from these infected children, who seem to turn it on whenever the plot deems it convenient. There were many examples during the movie of these kids snapping when they can smell the scent of their adult prey nearby, but then there are other points when these adults run and sweat, further engulfing themselves in fatigue that accelerates said smell, and there’s not even a flirt with such suspense. Other than this, the only other problem that I had with the movie was some slight obvious foreshadowing in the opening twenty minutes that one can read through the lines on to see where the film is headed. If you manage to watch this film in one continuous setting, these subplots that stick out like a sore thumb will constantly ring in the back of your mind near the end of the movie, and it suddenly becomes obvious how the dots connect. Small issues in the otherwise grander picture that is this frightening takeover that uniquely relays how adults are the new minority.
Leaps and bounds above the rest though, my favorite aspect to the film is a bittersweet fragile composition by Cristol Tapia De Veer. If one thing is certain, it’s that Cristol has definitely done his studying on the genre of zombie classics like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and the George Romero offering of zombie introductions. On those movies, ‘Gifts’ too uses the same few notes to repetition, slowly varying them with each passing second. This allows audiences to fully soak in and embrace the dread that envelopes our cast of characters in a dense fog. In addition to this, the overall sound mixing and editing justify a couple of jump scares in the script that constantly keep the viewer guessing. I’m a difficult person to rattle when it comes to timely jump scares, but ‘Gifts’ hit me hard during a second act reveal that came opposite from the side that you weren’t expecting. It overall makes for a grade-A experience if you watch this in a theater or a stacked surround sound experience.
The acting too brings to light a combination of reputable actors with relative unknowns that blended positively in a well-balanced cast. Gemma Arterton is someone who I’ve always felt needed the right script to shine appropriately, and as Justineau we get the lone character who understands and holds onto the importance of that dying age of positivity for the concept of a child being a child. Arterton and Melanie’s friendship weighs heavily in importance for the direction of the movie, and thankfully it inherits loads of heart to keep the protagonist angles working overtime against the remainder of adults who have their own selfish agendas. Such a character is Glenn Close’s Dr. Caldwell character. There’s so much menace and plotting going on underneath the surface of Close’s outstanding work here, and that attention to detail had me often times searching for the grand scheme beneath her stone cold exterior. Close and Atterton lead the way for adult leads, but it’s in the introduction of Sennia Nanua in her first feature film. As Melanie, Nanua triumphs soundly, balancing equal parts human and monster that never feels riddled in gimmicks or underplayed in emotional response. For a 14-year-old, she is leaps and bounds above her age with how she plays the movie, and silently she commits theft on the stealing of this screenplay, a ‘girl with all of the gifts’, if you will.
By finding an original take on the zombie epidemic, as well as blazing through a circumference of well-timed scares and dreary backdrops, ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’ re-ignites an antidote of adrenaline deep within the heart of this aging subgenre. Poignant, atmospheric, and brutally hungry, this adaptation from Colm McCarthy will leave you reeling long after the ending that delivers on a solid payoff. This one takes a bite and keeps on chewing.