I’m genuinely shocked and more than a little troubled that a film as near perfect and genuinely original and effective as The Girl with All the Gifts is getting such pathetic distribution in actual theaters where audiences would eat this movie up (no pun intended). Director Colm McCarthy has done a remarkable job capturing a specific tone of creeping dread that syncs up perfectly with the global threat in the story that you want to share the film with all your friends who adore new voices in horror who actually seem to know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to try new things as part of their process.
The set up for The Girl with All the Gifts may sound familiar. It’s not exactly a zombie movie in the classic sense of the films of George Romero or “The Walking Dead”. It falls more squarely in the “infection” category of films like 28 Days Later…, where a bite or any exchange of bodily fluids with an infected person sends a fungus to your brain that turns its victim into a raging and biting shell of a human. At the point that we enter this world, the “Hungries” have more or less taken over everything. A small group of military types live on a protected base with a handful of children, who seem sweet and innocent but are treated like the worst kind of criminal by the base commander, Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine).
The children are taken to class everyday where they are taught what appear to be the usual type of lessons by a sympathetic teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who sees such goodness in her students, especially the eager and curious Melanie (a remarkable performance by newcomer Sennia Nanua), who clearly wishes to obey all the rules and impress her teacher with her intelligence and eagerness to learn more. The fourth primary player in this setting is Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), who sees this particular group of children as the key to ridding humanity of this infection once and for all.
Working from the wildly popular novel by Mike Carey (who also adapted the screenplay), the film isn’t eager to give us all the information we crave all at once. Much like the Hungries of the story, we’re given bits to feast on until the almost overwhelming nature of the truth and scope of the problem is revealed. It turns out the children were born infected (they literally chewed their way out of their mothers’ wombs) years earlier and have somehow managed to maintain their humanity and cognitive abilities, unlike their adult counterparts. But they are still very much flesh eaters, and if they catch a whiff of something living, they lose their minds (a type of hand sanitizer seems to keep the smell off the base personnel).
Much of The Girl with All the Gifts doesn’t concern itself with the battle to keep this last pocket of humanity alive; it’s more about the struggle between the teacher and the scientist to define whether Melanie is a human being or a destructive force. Melanie goes out of her way to behave safely around the people around her, especially when the infected breach the base, and the small band of protectors have to escape and seek a new place to hide and find more survivors. There are individual moments in the movie that are so scary and tense, you want to scream just to break the tension, including an insane tip-toeing through a pack of “sleeping” Hungries (apparently they enter a coma-like standing state until a smell or noise wakes them). Because Melanie is already infected, the Hungries aren’t interested in her, so she becomes the group’s most valuable weapon.
At various points in the journey, the filmmakers want even the audience to be conflicted about Melanie’s true nature and objectives. Once the end goal of the invading fungus is made clear, the issue of her purpose is all the more blurred. Is she simply mimicking good behavior to earn the trust of her captors? Or is she a good kid fighting for acceptance in a world that is understandably distrustful of her “kind”? The parallels to today’s conflicted ideas of “dangerous outsiders” are pretty obvious, and McCarthy (a veteran British television director of such series as “Peaky Blinders,” “Doctor Who,” and “Sherlock”) and Carey don’t shy away from using familiar language and situations to both make their commentary clear as well as make the scares all the more reality based.
The Girl with All the Gifts is an extraordinary work that is both terrifying as a horror film and deeply effective as a very human story. These are some of the many reasons it pains me to report that the film is only opening in the Chicago area at the AMC Loews Woodridge 18, roughly 30 miles outside of the city in suburban Woodridge. If you’re able, try to make an day of it this weekend and go see the film at the theatre with your friends. You won’t regret it. The Girl with All the Gifts is available to rent digitally on Amazon as well though.