A star is born. I had my !Ah-HA! moment at the Toronto International Film Festival #TIFF16 this year after the midnight madness screening of The Girl With All The Gifts. Why? The understated as it is riveting acting by Sennia Nenua as Melanie, the titular girl, who holds every scene she is in, and steals this movie with a performance that fixates her as the star of the movie from the first frame.
A little background. I detest films or stories that put children in mortal peril. It gets to me more and more as the trend to put younger and younger actors in harm’s way as bait or prey seems to be trending up. There’s seldom character development except the increased ability to become as vile and violent as the source of their persecution. So, it was with reluctance that I chose this film after a recommendation from a fellow TIFF colleague, @TOFilmfest. I owe someone a beer.
There’s a lot of familiar territory here; ‘dystopian future’ blah blah….’ fungus devolves anyone it infects into flesh eating zombies (called hungries in this case)‘….yadda yadda yadda. Aaaaaaaand then there’s the twist. Some children who are turned, have retained essential elements of humanity, with emotions and cognitive development. While these anomalies are being studied on a heavily guarded compound as possible source for a cure by a committed researcher, played severely on point by Glenn Close, the property is overrun with the expected gruesome appetite of the unwashed masses of the other ‘ordinary flesh eaters’.
Before this happens, however, we are introduced to Melanie. Who is noticeably intelligent, polite and more agreeable than most children who are not prone to biting through your arm and drinking blood. Her obedience is not to be confused with an inability to smell your flesh and want to devour it, as one self aware, frightening scene with her favourite teacher confirms.
This could be a small ensemble cast, if not for the outstanding performance by Nenua’s Melanie. To see her command your attention in the same frame as the venerable Close, confirms that we will see more of the new girl. Melanie stands out in her commitment to communicate with the small team who escape the compound, towards London. But as the story develops, we see her increasing curiosity with the world, combined with raw ability (pun intended) to manipulate more than one situation in her favour, and challenge the notion of humanity and her place in it, along the way. The ending is unexpected and satisfying. Again, not what I expected.
After the screening, there was a Q&A with the author of the book, screenwriter of the movie, director and producers. They had a refreshing conversation about doing open casting, to see who would best fit the role without attention to race. If such as decision can result in The Girl With All the Gifts, film makers need to make it more often.
This movie is one of the #bestofthefest for me. It confirmed that a played out genre (the zombies are coming!) can be refreshed with smart writing and flawless talent. Need I say, I highly recommend it.