Most Hollywood movies these days are made for teenagers. Sure, adults show up for superhero epics and such, but as long as they bear the coveted PG-13 rating, you can bet teens are the primary target audience.
Given that reality, I can't hate seeing teen girls finally get their share of multiplex representation. As the tough-yet-vulnerable protagonist of The Hunger Games franchise, Jennifer Lawrence disproved the Hollywood adage that male viewers won't watch films about women. Turns out they will, as long as the women are young, attractive and kicking ass.
The Hunger Games was such a massive crossover hit that it inspired a wave of knock-offs, first on the page and now on the screen. Veronica Roth's best-selling novel Divergent follows the dystopian template, but its central conceit lacks the satirical flair of Suzanne Collins' reality-TV-inspired contest to the death. The screen adaptation of Divergent has two main points in its favor: dynamic action scenes from director Neil Burger (Limitless); and the likable Shailene Woodley as its heroine. But the film can't get past a premise and plot that don't make a whole lot of sense.
In another vague post-collapse-of-society future, the residents of Chicago live in a crumbling, fenced-in urbanscape. They've divided themselves into color-coded factions based on Judeo-Christian virtues: Abnegation (caregivers), Dauntless (soldiers), Erudite (nerds), Amity ("Kumbaya" types) and Candor (truth tellers).
Born into Abnegation, Beatrice (Woodley) has always envied the super-cool Dauntless kids. After her standard personality test reveals she may be Divergent — possessing more than one dominant trait — she seizes the chance to switch factions, rename herself Tris and become a black-clad, tattooed badass. But initiation into Dauntless is more perilous than our heroine realizes.
At its heart, Divergent is wish fulfillment for teens raised by control freaks. Tris casts off her parents' drab, selfless pacifism to join a fight club full of hunky, punky guys, and she loves every minute of it — except when she's almost getting killed, which is often. The movie doesn't skimp on the book's violence: boys knocking out girls in the ring, daredevil stunts, kids shooting assault rifles. Meanwhile, of course, there's a budding romance between Tris and her trainer, Four (Theo James), who only pushes her because he cares about her.
It's not often we see a female character go through a military-style hazing, and Woodley makes Tris' determination to prevail as believable as her terror. But the hazing in war films is generally a prelude to, well, war. We expect to see a bigger picture.
And that's where Divergent runs into problems: The big picture never snaps into focus. The struggle between the governing Abnegation faction and the wily Erudites is little more than an excuse for action setpieces. Kate Winslet plays the Erudite leader with icy calm — she seems to be channeling Gillian Anderson's recent roles — but she can't give this villain a solid motivation, because Roth didn't. Viewers have to take the evil of the smart faction on faith, just as they must swallow the notion that Tris threatens her whole society because, as her mom (Ashley Judd) puts it, "Your mind works in a million different ways." Being divergent sounds just like being human.
Do teens worry about being stuck in boxes? Of course. Divergent takes those real fears and overloads them with sci-fi bric-a-brac and epic pretensions. When those pretensions reveal their hollowness, what's left is the tale of a good girl walking on the wild side — perfect for its target audience, less interesting to those who've grown up and been there, done that.