The girl looks harmless. She has kind eyes and a sweet smile. She speaks politely to the armed guards who come to retrieve her from her prison cell. She’s the star student in her jailhouse class. But there must be a reason she’s always shackled to a wheelchair, and why the prison guards keep assault rifles trained on her at all times.

There is.

The girl is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), the title character of The Girl With All the Gifts, which brings a welcome injection of new blood to the zombie genre. Melanie isn’t a zombie, at least in the traditional sense. She has thoughts and feelings and doesn’t stumble around like an animated corpse. But there’s more to Melanie than first meets the eye. When her teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), gets a little too close to Melanie during class one day, one of the guards, Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine), gives a demonstration with another one of the students, who’s also chained to his wheelchair. Parks spits on his arms and rubs it, then shoves the limb under the boy’s nose. Suddenly, the kid’s jaw distends and he begins chomping and snarling as he yanks at his restraints. The smell of humans drives these children into a frenzy. (Most of the time, the living wear “blocker gel” to mask their scent.)

Like the kids in this very unsettling class, The Girl With All the Gifts is full of surprises. It keeps shifting before our eyes, from atmospheric horror to intense survival thriller to thoughtful contemplation of humanity’s place in our planet’s food chain. Based on a novel by M.R. Carey, who also wrote the movie’s sharply economical screenplay, The Girl With All the Gifts manages to deliver everything you could possibly want from a zombie movie: Tons of scares, memorable characters, creative variations of the genre’s classic tropes, and serious subtext about what it means to be alive.

Much of that comes from Nanua, who is astonishingly mature for a young actress in her first feature film role. She manages to make Melanie an object of terror, sympathy, and admiration throughout — often simultaneously in the same scene. The Girl With All the Gifts is stacked with good performances from top to bottom, including Arterton’s melancholy Miss Justineau and Considine’s multifaceted Parks, who distrusts Melanie but slowly grows to rely on her cunning and toughness. Glenn Close brings a welcome toughness to the film as Dr. Caldwell, a scientist who believes Melanie holds to key to finding a cure to the disease that turns people into brainless “hungries.” But Caldwell will need to dissect Melanie to synthesize that cure.

Caldwell’s scenes with Melanie explore The Girl With All the Gifts’ strongest ideas. If Melanie’s tissues can save the world, should she be put to death? If she eats flesh and blood (and sometimes human flesh and blood) but still has emotions and the capacity for thought, is she a monster or a person? Melanie’s battles with Dr. Caldwell also make the film a timeless story about the struggles between generations. Should the old be wiped out to make room for the new?

You’ll have to see The Girl With All the Gifts for yourself to see where the movie falls on these issues  and you should. Whatever your thoughts on its ending, you have to give the movie credit for having the courage to see its bleak worldview through to its logical conclusion; kudos to director Colm McCarthy (previously best known for work on British TV series like Peaky Blinders) for refusing to sugarcoat Carey’s novel for the chance at wider mainstream appeal. I walked out of The Girl With All the Gifts genuinely disturbed. And elated.


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