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TIFF Review: The Girl With All the Gifts Finds a New Perspective on Zombies

3/5 stars.

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Melanie is a special girl, but she’s not a human girl.

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) loves solving math equations, learning new stories from Greek mythology, and going to school–but most of all, she loves her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Every day, Melanie wakes up, hoping that it’s Miss Justineau’s turn to teach her class. Her alarm clock, however, is a sergeant (Paddy Considine) knocking loudly on the door of her locked prison cell and hollering, “Wake up, you filthy abortion!”

In director Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts, a fungal infection has taken out most of humanity and the infected have become flesh-eating monstrosities called “hungries.” But where the hungries mindlessly chase what’s left of humanity, Melanie demonstrates a great deal of intelligence and restraint. She’s not like the other hungries. In fact, she wants nothing more than to save her beloved Miss Justineau from them.

In 2014, Mike Carey fleshed out his award-winning short story “Iphigenia In Aulis” into The Girl with All the Gifts, simultaneously writing both the novel as well as the script for the film. The script’s provenance lends itself to comparing the different versions of The Girl with All the Gifts in a way that isn’t necessarily as pressing with standard book-to-film adaptations. For example, the novel is very lean, with a straightforward narrative that hits the ground running and doesn’t stop to ruminate on much. On the other side of the coin, almost everything in the novel is included in the film, and the experience of watching the events unfold on screen is akin to déjà vu. It’s often very difficult to separate Colm McCarthy’s film adaptation from its source material.

There are only two major changes in the switch from book to film. The “junkers,” this particular dystopia’s Mad Max-like scavengers, are nowhere to be seen in the film. Melanie and Justineau’s races are also now flipped. Though it would be adhering to canon to cast an older dark-skinned woman as co-lead, her whitewashing isn’t as heartbreaking as it could have been since, in exchange, the film gets to have a young, clever black girl as hero.

Unfortunately, where the book felt vast–with its heroes trekking across large swathes of London in one ceaseless attempt to reach safe harbor after their base is compromised–the film is limited in its scale. McCarthy (who has previously directed Sherlock and Doctor Who) scales down the amount of terrain Melanie, Miss Justineau, and Sgt. Parks (Considine) have to cover to the point where it’s as if they’re just covering a couple of blocks. Everything is so cramped that Melanie and the surviving humans sneak passed crowds of hungries, walk right up into their faces, and still manage to hide from them. This pushes The Girl with All the Gifts a bit off the believability index, making the audience scoff at the heroes’ survival skills.

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The film is saved from mediocrity primarily by its lead, newcomer Sennia Nanua. Melanie’s big heart and enthusiasm for the world outside her cell is beautifully expressed on Nanua’s face. It’s easy to forget that Melanie isn’t actually a little girl–Miss Justineau and Sgt. Parks often do–so when her young, open expressions violently turn inhuman, it’s all the more terrifying.

The Girl with All the Gifts is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18. The film–also starring Glenn Close–hits theaters later this month.

Images via Warner Bros.

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“Sasha James is that really cool friend you hope likes the same movies you do because when that happens you are, if only for a moment, just as cool” (TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies). You can follow her on Twitter @ThatSashaJames.

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