Being human

Updated: 2017-02-24 07:15

By Elizabeth Kerr(HK Edition)

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The coming-of-age story: a form that has been used time and again to couch a social, political or emotional metaphor. Coming of age does not necessarily coincide with attaining biological maturity. Denzel Washington's homophobic lawyer had his coming of age well after he had become an adult in Philadelphia, just as Jean-Pierre Laud did in his early teens in The 400 Blows. The first's a courtroom drama and the latter a specimen of French new-wave Existentialism. In their own ways, both are coming-of-age tales.

In Barry Jenkins' Oscar-nominated Moonlight an isolated African-American boy grows into adulthood as a gay, black man. In Colm McCarthy's criminally underrated The Girl with All the Gifts an eager, lonely girl could be the embodiment of the next stage in human evolution. In both films - one a standard character-driven drama, and the other a zombie thriller - we watch as someone is compelled to confront the schism between the world they think they know and the world as it is, and find their place in it. In a just world, Moonlight would be best picture come Oscar night over the enjoyable but mindless La La Land, and TGwAtG would find a Walking Dead-sized audience.

In Moonlight, Miami elementary school-aged Little (Alex Hibbert) grows into the teenager Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and finally the ex-con Black (Trevante Rhodes). Along the way he wrestles with his budding sexuality, his place as a black man in America and as a gay man in the black community. In youth he finds acceptance and guidance in surrogate father Juan (Mahershala Ali) as his mother (Naomie Harris) is lost to addiction, and in adulthood in old school chum Kevin (Andr Hollande).

The Girl with All the Gifts begins with a group of children, immobilized in wheelchairs in an underground bunker, being herded around like vicious animals. One of them is Melanie (fabulous newcomer Sennia Nanua), bright, inquisitive and relentlessly polite despite her circumstances. It turns out she's a new breed of zombie, a "hungry", and part of a vaccine research program led by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). When the military complex is overrun, Caldwell, Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) and a hateful soldier, Parks (Paddy Considine) try and make their way to the next safe location.

Structurally and narratively Moonlight and the TGwAtG have little in common, but the humanity at the core of both and careful observations of human behavior on the part of the films' directors, make them equally engaging and delicately thought-provoking. Impeccable casting aside, the three actors playing Chiron in Jenkins' empathetic drama make the banal engrossing, and the unfamiliar recognizable. They have a script to work from that is so finely calibrated - matching James Laxton's almost lyrical images perfectly - it is, ultimately, simultaneously, specific to Chiron and universal. Jenkins makes every frame count and is never reductive in charting Chiron's growth, steering clear of easy clich and archetype. Intimate in a way films rarely are these days, it boils down to one man figuring out who he is, and in doing so becomes one of the richest movie experiences of the year so far. There is something undeniably triumphant in the final frames.

TGwAtG, like Arrival earlier this year, uses all the trappings of genre filmmaking, in this case the zombie thriller and the YA adventure, and mashes them together to create something new, and far more esoteric. While posing some very fundamental ethical questions, McCarthy (working from a script by Mike Carey, based on his novel) never forgets this is, in fact, science fiction (the best kind). As Melanie makes her case for equal consideration when she comes to understand her worth as a person, there's no shortage of white-knuckle action and eerie urban wastelands. Weaving issues as disparate as platonic affection, disillusionment and identity around an apocalyptic survival thriller - and around nuanced, layered characters - McCarthy has given a much-needed jolt of originality to a tired sub-genre. Contrary as they are, Moonlight and The Girl with All the Gifts are the reasons we still go to the movies.

(HK Edition 02/24/2017 page1)