The Girl with All the Gifts
Directed by Colm McCarthy
Opens February 24
A hushed whisper counts up from one. The voice is a child’s—Melanie’s (Sennia Nanua). In a hole of a room outfitted with just a bed, photos of a cat and foliage, and a wheelchair, she’s keeping her brain full of figures. Unflappably sharp knowledge is just one of her many gifts, as the title would pose. When we see her android-like demeanor, we wonder what else she’s capable of. More importantly, we wonder why militarized guards are pointing guns at her, even though she’s strapped to a wheelchair. She even greets them cheerily. This procedure, this orange jumpsuit she wears, these niceties towards fear in various forms, are perhaps all Melanie and her similarly bound fellow student-prisoners have ever known. All this, plus an occasionally insatiable and rabid bloodlust. Despite the title, kid-friendly distributor Saban Films, and resemblance to post-apocalyptic YA fiction, The Girl with All the Gifts reanimates into a gory survival tale from a more innocent start… but then again, with the access young audiences now have to gore, the film’s R rating may not halt too much. It’s a dystopian yarn approaching themes regarding unstable living conditions for future generations, who seem more disconnected and alien from the one previous. A genuine sense of vulnerability is attempted by director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey, who penned the novel on which the film is based, but they’re as convincing as the shallow thrills.
In many cases, children in horror are either indirectly or pointedly responsible for the terror, making them a convenient emotional compass. The precognition of their effects steers the audience’s empathy. Melanie knows precisely what she’s capable of, even gifting her beloved teacher Mrs. Justineau (Gemma Arterton) fair warning before she devolves into the clattering, gnashing gremlin in a child’s skin. There’s nothing fake about Nanua’s sincerity in her performance; her combination of eloquence and gnarled wrath are far more compelling than the action sequences. She and her fellow “hungrys,” the film’s choice nomenclature for “zombie,” are triggered by the smell of non-hungrys. The children are in the early stages of the condition, which is developed by exposure to a fungus that has mutated a major segment of the world’s population. First, we’re on an army base, and the fences can only ward off the hungrys outside so much longer. Aside from Mrs. Justineau, Melanie’s major interactions are with Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) and brusk Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine). Both share a fear of Melanie and the children, but vary in their reaction. Parks is immaturely threatened by Melanie’s possessiveness towards Justineau—“She touched me,” she sneers at him, “She prefers me.” Caldwell plays logic games with Melanie, but eventually Melanie sees right through, making her Hannibal/basketball face mask more sensible: Caldwell is using her to help decide which child will be experimented upon next.
Once that’s revealed, the cussin’ and the brain eatin’ begins as the hungrys feast upon the base. The journey of Melanie and the grownups wavers weakly into a survival journey that becomes a question of who will get picked off next. Though the crew eventually stumble upon a lost city of children behaving like primitive cannibals (even down to tribal makeup), a fresh nod more to giallo rather than The Walking Dead, it’s a turn that dries quickly. Were the film more character-driven, some real innovations would have been made. The Girl with All the Gifts has ambitions to shake some genre norms up, but by favoring indulgence over patience, it’s derivative in all the wrong ways.