The Girl with All the Gifts

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"Will your braaaaains be on the midterm?"

With the post-apocalyptic setting of a young-adult novel and the slavering flesh-eaters of a zombie movie, “The Girl with All the Gifts” is a clever improvement on both genres, offering a rare look at what happens after society is decimated by a cannibalism-inducing contagion.

Near a ruined London, young Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of a couple dozen children being educated in a fortified bunker. All are infected with the virus, unable to resist attacking when they smell human flesh. When they don’t smell it, though (the uninfected people around them slather themselves in a lotion to block their scent), they are ordinary children. Melanie is especially pure, a guileless and intelligent girl whose body chemistry and unusual self-control might be the key to creating a vaccine. Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is the sympathetic teacher who thinks Melanie is special; Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) is the military leader who thinks they’re all monsters; Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is the lead scientist who thinks Melanie might be more valuable dead than alive.

A breach on the facility by “hungries” leads the film into standard zombie territory — a group of survivors must make their way to safe ground — but at every turn, the film comes up with new ways of addressing the familiar tropes. What is it, after all, that separates man from animal? And is it possible for a leopard to change its spots, metaphorically speaking? (Literally, no, it is not.) Director Colm McCarthy, working from writer M.R. Carey’s adaptation of his own novel, mixes horror, humor, and humanity with thrilling agility, all centered on a star-making performance by newcomer Sennia Nanua.

B+ (1 hr., 51 min.; R, profanity and some very strong violence.)