Zombie kids? Ok, I’ll bite!
No further belaboured zombie puns in Lee’s review of The Girl with all the Girls.
It is not necessarily a bad idea to build your narrative on a bedrock of established ideas; for a start, it saves time. You want your threat to be people, and you want to justify them attacking each other madly as a visual and physical representation of the horrors within our own species? Use zombies. People like zombies, people know what zombies are, and some people are even outright terrified of them; the perfect mass-appeal horror metaphor monster.
That said, you need to do a little more than just put zombies in your story, you need to push beyond. Give us some moral deliberation, some dystopian desperation, some ambiguity, some genuine scares and very few patronising pats on the head for your audience and you’ve got perhaps a pretty decent zombie movie. Now throw in some likeable characters, some memorable cinematography and a damn good ending (no matter how inapplicable and fantastical it may appear) and you’ve still got a great film now being somewhat held back by its not-too-interesting zombie movie roots.
To be fair, the rules of the world that bind The Girl with all the Gifts are well explored and established within the narrative itself, and the movie does its best to treat the zombies as a genuine threat, giving them rules so they don’t just show up for a cheap thrill, as well as a fast-acting consequence from encounters so the danger feels constant. The screenplay cleverly introduces new features and clarifies differences from your typical zombie film without drawing too much attention to its intentions, and deserves credit for doing so.
Framing the world from the eyes of Melanie, however, is the films strongest asset. A young half-breed between zombie and man, her lack of understanding gives us perfect cause to learn up on all this important exposition to give the ending any sort of impact, but feels natural as the child uses the learning as an excuse to bond and grow with her mentors/captors.
She also happens to be a very positive and likeable character, innocent enough that we take her side and friendly enough that we don’t mind doing so. It was a clever idea on behalf of the writer, and with a performance that outshines a lot of pretty solid performances, Sennia Nanua injects just enough heart to make the character believable with dipping into saccharine and twee.
The other humans are fairly three-dimensional as well, with teacher girl, doctor lady and gruff sergeant all getting fairly reasonably arcs along the road. Little conveniences do bug, like a pointless scene that spans out of Melanie going to get help rather than intervening herself which reads very much like ‘we had one too many characters to round out by film’s end’, but nothing grounds the momentum to a halt and, for a nearly two hour movie the film zips by.
Worth noting is the excellent set design and gorgeous expansive art that helps flesh out this new world as a concept; something about an overgrown London with big ads still intact feels incredibly believable, let alone being just good fun. While the camerawork does fall into sometimes TV-movie quality, clever long takes and relaxed single frames helps keep the world moving from lived in to haunted by fluidly.
Still, at the end of the day, while there is a few cool things to say about humanity and it certainly makes for a fun concept, there’s not really a lot to take away from the messages of The Girl with all the Gifts. Attempts to inject the screenplay with clever nods to great works and Greek myths just don’t really distract enough from the fact that this is still a zombie movie, an average fantasy we’ve seen countless times even if you don’t intend to.
It comes with a hearty recommendation though for those even remotely interested. Melanie alone is worth the price of admission; rarely are kids so well-rounded and believable in cinema, so we must take what we can get.
I’ll grant that The Last of Us did this better though. At least that outcome was weighted in the characters.