A fungal infection has caused an outbreak of zombies. In a walled-off facility, a scientist, Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), oversees tests on a group of children whose mothers were infected while pregnant - unlike other 'Hungries', they display normal cognitive function but still have a taste for human flesh. Caldwell sees them as the source of a potential cure.
Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of these children. Bright and inquisitive, she is a favourite of the kindly Ms Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who tests the children when the facility is overrun, the human survivors and Melanie try to reach one of the remaining human outposts.
As the group treks through zombie-ridden streets, the humans struggle to figure out what Melanie's true intentions are...
We have seen variations on the idea of a zombie exhibiting signs of its former humanity (Bub from Day of the Dead), or R (Nicholas Hoult) from Warm Bodies. What makes Melanie interesting is that she looks and acts like a normal child. And what makes Melanie so compelling is Sienna Nanua's performance.
Nanua's performance rides the line between empathetic child and stone-cold killer without tipping too far either way. She is so sympathetic yet terrifying, and the way the dulling impressions mature and evolve over the course of the story are the movie's dramatic foundation. There is something so genuine about her desire to please, and her need to be accepted. She is totally believable as a child trying to figure out a logic problem, and eating a cat that she hunts down.
Melanie is such a fascinating character because the movie is never completely aligned with her point-of-view.
While she is presented as vaguely benevolent, Melanie has her own motives that seperate her from the goals of her human companions, motives that are tied to both her being a child and a zombie. It is this combination which makes her so terrifying. Outside of her appetite for flesh, she is an orphaned child who has formed an emotional bond with a parental figure (Ms Justineau).
She is not old enough to grasp more abstract concepts like saving 'humanity'. She is focused on the humans that she knows, but aside from Justineau the other humans in the group (Caldwell, Sgt Parkes) treat her like a animal - Caldwell tries to dissect her, and Parkes tortures her after Melanie tells him Ms. Justineau likes her more than him.
The movie is well-shot with some great, creepy images: Melanie leading the group through a crowd of sleeping zombies; the wide shots of empty cityscapes (accomplished by flying drones over the abandoned town of Chernobyl, which adds a layer of verisimilitude).
The one aspect of the movie that I would have liked a little more from was Melanie's bond with Ms Justineau. The movie teases a triangle with Paddy Considine's suspicious Parkes but it never really goes in the direction I expected (which is surprising, I guess).
The third act is bleak for its human characters, but once again I was expecting some kind of surprise. There is nothing that wrong with it - it is clearly set up from the beginning, and the pieces fall into piece logically, but it ended up feeling a little neat.
Ultimately, The Girl With All The Gifts is a original, economical little horror movie that feels just a heartbeat away from greatness. Though the set up is better than the finale, it is a still a worthy addition to the zombie canon.