The trend of adapting dystopian young adult novels continues in “Divergent,” the first from a trilogy penned by Veronica Roth. Tris, the film’s heroine, portrayed by Shailene Woodley, is a teen trying to find her way in a highly regulated, futuristic society.
Just as high school cliques include jocks, geeks, preppies, thespians and skaters, in Tris’s world, society is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intellectual), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful) and Candor (the truth tellers).
Raised by Abnegators, Tris, like all 16 year olds, undergoes an aptitude test designed to identify the faction best suited to her abilities. However, the final decision in choosing her faction belongs to Tris because she must live with her choice for the rest of her life. No “changies” allowed.
Both the test and the choosing ritual are brutal. The test requires receiving an injection of hallucinogens, and the choosing requires the public display of an initiate’s blood pledge.
Jeanine (Kate Winslet), a bossy Erudite with ulterior motives, points out that in this society the credo is “faction before blood.” Tris doesn’t quite comprehend the meaning of this. Nevertheless, she yearns to become a Dauntless. To us they appear as a goth-like warrior class, but to Tris “they seem free” or at least devil-may-care, traveling around a futuristic Chicago by jumping on and off antiquated, moving elevated trains. Therefore, Tris is equal parts pleased and shocked to discover she’s a “Divergent,” one of a select few whose abilities makes them impossible to pigeonhole. Considered a threat to the order, Divergents are systematically destroyed, so Tris is fortunate that her tester Tori (Maggie Q) harbors a soft spot for Divergents.
Tris chooses the Dauntless faction and soon finds herself wandering the group’s cavernous digs, where she is instructed in fighting techniques and must learn to overcome her deepest fears. Though she may occasionally doubt her choice, Tris never doubts that she’s sweet on Four (Theo James), the hunky, brooding instructor who protects Tris from attack by a group of masked Dauntless agitators.
The adaptation is sufficiently intricate and absorbing that it nearly overcomes the obvious parallels between social divisions in high school and a plot that involves literally living and dying by social cliques. The film is elevated by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as Tris’s parents, Ansel Elgort as Tris’s brother,\ and Zoe Kravitz as a fellow Dauntless initiate. As Four, James is the sort of impossibly handsome, yet strong, young man that sets young girls swooning.
Director Neil Burger can’t seem to decide whether he prefers to keep Tris understated or highly emotional, but Woodley, who resembles a regular girl more than a Hollywood starlet, possesses an accessible quality that balances her portrayal.
At two hours and 20 minutes, the film includes several superfluous scenes in want of a trim or needing to be cut out altogether. Directors sometimes forget a movie is better served by finding its own rhythm than by parroting each word on the written page.