McCarthy melds a powerful and continually thrilling film out of a dystopian tug of war.
Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is the classic “good child,” the kid who suffers panic attacks if teacher won’t call on her. But when she catches a whiff of anything human, her eyes bug out, her teeth chatter and every joint in her body quivers with a nauseating crunching sound while she chomps in the direction of wherever the human scent came from. Melanie is a new breed of zombie, or “hungry” as the adults around her prefer to say, born with a fungal infection that has caused the adult world to crave brains. In director Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts, what’s left of the military aims to keep her and other young zombie-hybrids under lock and key to be used for experiments in the hope that their blood will provide a cure.
McCarthy melds a powerful and continually thrilling film out of a dystopian tug of war. Melanie and her peers have a favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, played by Gemma Arterton as a kindly pushover who treats the hungries as human children. The military and its scientists, led by Glenn Close’s enigmatic Dr. Caldwell, callously insist that these are dangerous things that will destroy the last of the human race. Neither side is right, and the partisan approaches do no good for the world or the imprisoned children.
With the help of cinematographer Simon Dennis, the film uses a calm and restrained camera to track characters on both sides of the ideological divide as they come to realize with increasing horror that they can all be wrong. Close imbues Caldwell with a cognitive dissonance that the doctor cannot overcome; she sees remarkable and often kind things done by Melanie and other hungries, but can’t look past the biological differences, and it breaks her. As Miss Justineau, Arterton takes a feel-good approach to the youngsters. That gentler style may be better, but she has blinded herself to the harsher elements inherent to the kids.
Caught between these factions is Melanie, a girl who wishes only to please others. Having one foot firmly planted in both human and hungry worlds means she can’t please anyone fully. Nanua’s Melanie is a child filled with sorrow over the fact that her very existence means she will be hated. McCarthy takes the time to show how even in her alone time, Melanie has internalized emotional abuse. She eats a stray cat because she needs to survive and doesn’t want to eat her human traveling companions, but she is ashamed of her survival urges — the camera pushes in on her face as she completes her meal, satisfying her pangs of hunger but not her desire for connection. Her restraint when around these people — easy meals — means this is a kid who deserves nurturing and praise, and caring is hard to come by in this world. But Melanie never stops looking for it.
The world will change regardless of how these older humans feel about it, and it kills them emotionally long before they can potentially succumb to the new creatures that have overrun the planet. Melanie and the other hybrids are the future. Nobody can see that for what it really means. It’s jarring and disruptive, but it’s beautiful in its own way. Caldwell and the military want to play a zero-sum game, creating a choice between the zombies and their evolution against the survival of regular, living and breathing people. It’s greed, a pure and simple way of saying, “This is mine, not yours, go away.” But there might be another option, one represented by Melanie and the other half-zombie children, those in-between creatures who may be best suited to bridge gaps in a fundamentally changed world. When Melanie says, “It’s just not yours anymore,” that may be the answer. But that harsh condemnation of human greed isn’t the end, and there is hope in that.