MPW-91882Divergent (2014).

D: Neil Burger. W: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor. DP: Alwin H. Kuchler. Starring: Shailene Woodley/Theo James/Kate Winslet/Jai Courtney/Ashley Judd/Tony Goldwyn/Miles Teller/Zoe Kravitz/Ansel Elgort/Maggie Q/Ray Stevenson/Mekhi Phifer/Ben Lloyd-Hughes/Christian Madsen. (Based on Veronica Roth’s YA novel.)

Another addition to the YA film adaptation catalog, Divergent joins fellow Liongsate/Summit owned Twilight and The Hunger Games as the surge to bring profitable YA book series to the screen continues. Concluded in three books, Veronica Roth’s series has had the chance to sit back and scope out its franchise predecessors (and natural box office comparisons). Director Neil Burger did just that and was able to create a look that feels independent of previous franchises.

Lacking the sappiness of spineless Bella in Twilight and gaining the active strength of Katniss in The Hunger Games, Divergent centers on Tris Prior whose grown up in a post-apocalyptic/post-epic big battle world where citizens are categorized around basic human personality traits and values. Honesty (Candor), selflessness (Abnegation), bravery (Dauntless), harmony (Amnity) and intelligence (Erudite) groups attempt to coexist with each faction taking on certain community responsibilities. At the age of sixteen members of each faction take a test to guide them into picking their adult faction. And of course this is where the heroine is to be found. Discovering she might not fit in any one faction, Shailene Woodley’s Tris makes a choice. And despite it’s derivative nature the basic fact that author Veronica Roth has our female protagonist make choices allows the series to be compelling to read and to watch. Tris is not a reactor like Bella, she is not a victim of circumstance, rather she forges her own future. Much like The Hunger Games‘ Katniss, Tris is a female character not defined by trite romance, but her convictions and choices she makes.

On critics and audiences’ radar since 2011’s Oscar winning film The Descendants, Shailene Woodley adds this film to her canon of young adult themed work. Last summer’s The Spectacular Now was a festival darling that put Woodley back on the map and will be joined by this summer’s adaption of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Woodley is all limbs, hair and eyes here, lending a softness to Tris that nicely expresses her selfless upbringing. Her chemistry with Four (Theo James) works and is paced well against the accelerating backdrop of the film’s main plot (intelligence is power to overcome human nature? snooze). Although neither performance are deeply complex or genre breaking, James and Woodley build enough layers with what’s given to them. It is still young adult fair, right?

Striding in and out of Tris’ way is Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews, emphasizing the boring bits of the script and clear breeze for the Oscar winner, she’ll at least have more to do in the next film. Ashley Judd is remarkably resurrected as Tris’ mother although both her and Woodley wear far too much movie makeup to be living in a selfless and no mirrors allowed community. Menacing and the most memorable though is Jai Courtney as Eric, the dauntless leader and James’ Four’s rival. Pierced and tattooed, Courtney exudes the true nature of his faction and adds weight to the impending darkness and death in the plot. Both Judd and Courtney will remind audiences that ultimately this is more an action movie than anything else.

Although not tackling the sequel, Insurgent, director Neil Burger creates a rustic world that visually blends the new with the decrepit. However, at certain points music cues provide silly breaks in the flow of the film and as quickly as Woodley’s bruises seem to disappear the trappings of the genre seem to reappear (cue the concluding voiceover). Yet, Divergent is engrossing and evokes less eye rolling than is normally expected. Remaining mostly faithful to its source novel, a few less people die and certain events and characters are condensed, it surely is a decent addition to the YA canon.

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