TIFF 2016: The Girl with All the Gifts

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Just when it seems that there are no stones left unturned when it comes to zombie related stories, director Colm McCarthy’s latest film finds a way to inject new blood into the genre. Offering a refreshing premise, and set in a dystopian future, The Girl with All the Gifts tells the tale of precocious little Melanie (Sennia Nanua). Similar to other young girls her age, Melanie takes delight in going to school and hearing stories from her favourite teacher Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton). However, she does not attend a traditional school, nor is she a conventional student.

Prior to each lesson, Melanie and her classmates are restrained, muzzled, and escorted to their classroom by armed British soldiers commanded by the stern Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine). Although Melanie is unclear of her past she is, in the eyes of the soldiers, viewed as a monster. A flesh eating abomination that, according to scientist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), may hold the cure to the virus that has turned bulk of mankind into “Hungries.” Desperate to find a vaccine, Dr. Caldwell’s plans of experimenting on Melanie are derailed when a horde of the undead overruns the military facility where Melanie and her kind are locked away. Experiencing the outside world for the first time, Melanie has to quickly learn to adapt to these new and foreign surroundings if she hopes to keep herself and Ms. Justineau safe.

The Girl with All the Gifts gets great mileage out of its “what if zombies behaved like humans?” premise. McCarthy’s uses this question to ponder who are the true monsters within the world of the film. Is it he horde of Hungries? Hybrids like Melanie? Or the soldiers and scientist who refuse to see humanity in Melanie? McCarthy strikes gold with his casting of Sennia Nanua in the role of Melanie. Bringing the right amount of innocence and ferocity to the part, Nanua effectively introduces a new black heroine to zombie genre.

As intriguing as the premise is, the film does occasionally falters when McCarthy falls back on some traditional zombie staples. Observing action sequences where the Hungries are repeatedly shot in the head does little to excite. The same can be said for certain tropes-take for example when a soldier is sent out alone to find food rather than sending the nearly undetectable Melanie-that feel more like McCarthy checking off genre boxes more than anything else.

Fortunately, the inspired premise and strong performances more than make up for the film’s occasional shortcomings. The Girl with All the Gifts may not completely reinvent the zombie wheel, but it proves that there are still enough innovated ideas to keep the genre turning.

Screens:
Wednesday, September 14, 11:59 PM, Ryerson Theater
Sunday, September 18, 12:45 PM, Scotiabank Theater

Tickets can be purchased at tiff.net