The Girl With All the Gifts (2016, dir. Colm McCarthy)
Zombies. I don’t really get it. They seem to have an endless appeal to a large enough group of people that creators keep coming back to them. They’ve never really scared me which probably has to do with how I see them in that category of conflict of Man vs. Nature which isn’t interesting to me. A few have broken through and managed to interest me: Pontypool, 28 Days Later, Deadgirl. But for the most part, they seem to play out the same tired cliches and tropes.
The Girl With All the Gifts (based on the novel by Mike Carey) starts us out in the twilight of man’s fight against a fungal outbreak that has turned humans into ravenous hordes. The film is told through the eyes of Melanie, an 11-year-old girl who, with dozens of other children are kept in a subterranean prison, observed by scientists, and held at gunpoint by paranoid soldiers. As things often do in zombie films, the proceedings get chaotic, and our human characters are on the run. However, they survivors bring Melanie along who isn’t entirely human and whose origins reveal something much bigger about the fungal outbreak.
The overarching theme of the film is about the power of the older generation being lost and handed off to the younger generation. This particular passing of the torch is not one done willingly, and it is easy to see the conflict reflective of generational clashes in our own history. There is also some impressive play with the idea of how one generation processes the behavior of the new as mindless and evil when they simply don’t understand the underlying motives at play. Sadly, these themes are about the only good thing in this film.
The most frustrating aspect of The Girl With All the Gifts is the lack of strong character development. Instead, the script focuses on hitting plot points and moving characters from location to location. There are never enough still enough, quiet moments to develop the relationships between characters, most importantly Melanie to her teacher Ms. Justineau. That relationship feels like it’s meant to be the crux of the entire story and it is so lightly touched upon it feels inconsequential. The film’s ending behaves as though we have a high investment in these two and ends up feeling shallow because the foundations were never laid to evoke the strong emotional response the filmmakers except.
Melanie is played by newcomer Sennia Nanua, and she feels very much like a child actor. Maybe I was spoiled by Royalty Hightower’s naturalistic style in The Fits, but Nanua isn’t as hammy as a stereotypical “Broadway kid, ” but she just doesn’t seem to have a handle on realistically emoting. It never feels like anything that happens in the story lands with weight on her. There is a scene where Melanie has to take a life, nd it should play as dark and heavy, but the performance just feels like an actor doing “actor tears”. The supporting cast has some strong names: Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton, and Glenn Close. However, even they aren’t given much to do outside hitting plot points to advance the story.
The flaws in this film likely come from the inexperience of the director in feature work. Colm McCarthy has primarily done television work which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does come with a lack of interesting cinematography and different type of pacing with character development. The look of The Girl is disappointingly bland. The majority of shots are either medium shots or long shots when there could be some more interesting ways to show this story unfold. The setting of the third act is full of interesting visual potential but never seizes it.
I was very excited to see this film and expected some interesting twists on the tired zombie genre. While there are lots of interesting themes and ideas brought up, nothing is ever developed particularly through the characters.