VOD Review: The Girl with All the Gifts.
Netflix created another excellent movie that promptly slipped through the cracks.
The Girl with All the Gifts is a heart-wrenching and gripping dystopian zombie movie based on M.R. Carey’s excellent book. I didn’t think those existed anymore, but Netflix proved me wrong. This story about mankind trying to avoid extinction by any means necessary is rife with philosophical questions, but never forgets to be entertaining. It is grounded by a strong cast, and benefits from an eye-opening performance from young newcomer Sennia Nanua, who plays the lead role.
Much like 2015’s war drama, Beasts of No Nation, this film has gone largely unremarked. I can’t for the life of me imagine why this is, though I have a sinking feeling it may have something to do with both films having a largely black cast. These films deserve to be on everyone’s recommended list as they are some of the best in-house productions Netflix has made to date.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
A fungal infection has turned most of humanity into zombies. The infected generally remain comatose unless they smell a living creature, at which point they attack mindlessly and relentlessly. In an isolated military compound a group of scientists and soldiers are hoping to create a breakthrough to control the zombies.
They have rounded up children that were born to infected mothers, kids that remain sentient unless exposed to human scent. The children are experimented on to see what makes them tick, but one girl in particular shows promise: Melanie, a genius level girl who seems to be in preternatural control of herself. When the compound is compromised, Melanie and her caretaker Ms. Justineau venture into the wider world to experience the devastation first-hand.
Sense of Place.
Director Colm McCarthy does a fantastic job of creating interesting and detailed locations. The first arc of the story takes place at the compound, where the children are jailed like psychotic patients. Just being dropped into that setting you get a feel for what the stakes are, and how the people in this drama act. They’re desperate and ruthless, but some vestiges of order and humanity at least try to poke through.
When the action moves into the surrounding country, we get treated to haunting landscapes that give us an interlude between the violence we have experienced and the danger we know is coming.
Finally, when the group of survivors arrive at a city, we again are treated to a setting that speaks volumes. The improvised defenses and barricades, mostly in shambles, gives us a strong sense of what happened, without resorting to flashback. The state of the world is clearly visible and fleshed out in a way that some zombie movies can’t create even with a full run-time, flashbacks, and narration.
Sense of Character.
The cast of this film is fantastic. Once again the plot moves very fast, so having characters who can communicate the situation without having to monologue or babble talking points is crucial. The interactions between Melanie and the sympathetic Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the brutally efficient Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine), and the cunning Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) speak volumes. We have three factions right up front: those who want the kids killed, those who want them harvested, and those who want to save them.
As wonderful as the adult performances are, and Glenn Close really sinks her teeth into a thankless and villainous role, Sennia Nanua steals the show as Melanie. For this only being her second film, she is a talented and multi-faceted young actress. Melanie is a tough role. She craves affirmation, sees Ms. Justineau as a tragic mother figure in need of saving, is cunning enough to placate those who fear her, and is shrewd enough to spar with Dr. Caldwell. It takes a well-rounded performance to not overplay any of those angles or to make them feel unearned.
Sense of Loss.
Finally, The Girl with All of the Gifts is such an excellent film because every aspect of it is so evocative. There’s nothing wasted. Every visual tells a story. Each character interaction speaks volumes. The action sequences are thrilling and punctuate the films constant sense of despair with well crafted violence. Nothing anyone says or does is ever wasted.
Much like Beasts of No Nation, the plot of this film is bleak. Any “happy ending” for Melanie is going to be bad for those around her, and vice-versa. There is an untenable power struggle in the offing, and while few talk about it directly, you get the constant sense that we’re reaching an inflection point in the struggle of humanity versus the offspring of the infection.
It Just Makes Sense.
No film is perfect, but I found very few flaws. Only once does a character do the blatantly stupid thing that gets normal characters killed in a zombie movie. I wish there had been just a little more time in the compound, since that section of the novel was so amazing, but I can’t say Colm McCarthy didn’t err on the side of serving the overall narrative instead of indulging fans of the novel. The pacing is pretty breathless, but it once again serves the greater narrative. The Girl with All the Gifts is lean and mean, and doesn’t waste your time.
This film knows you’ve seen zombies before. It also knows that one of the reasons M.R. Carey’s book was such an instant classic in the genre because it smartly reworked familiar aspects of the zombie narrative to turn your sympathies on their head. Since the film can’t live in Melanie’s head like the narration of the book, it smartly opts to show instead of tell. You know how zombie’s destroy a city, so we don’t need to see it for the 100th time. You know how people in these films act, so you only see when they’re doing something unexpected. Colm McCarthy values your time and intelligence, and sets out just the right road signs you’ll need in order to make the mental journey on your own.