Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) lives with her parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) in a bombed-out ugliness-future and they all wear gray smocks. They're members of Abnegation, a societal "faction.” In this walled-off habitat, all humanity is segregated into factions; besides Abnegation (the selfless), there’s Candor (truth-tellers), Amity (the kind-hearted), Erudite (smarties) and Dauntless (the warriors). You know it’s a dystopian future when the powers that be can’t even come up with names from the same parts of speech.
At age 16, all citizens take an aptitude test and choose a faction for life. But Beatrice tests positive for Dauntless and Erudite in addition to her birth faction. And that’s bad. It means she’s Divergent -- uncontrollable and unclassifiable. Special.
Hunger Games special. Twilight special. And Beatrice is that special because the booming market of Young Adult Literature demands it and the film industry demands YA adaptations in the hopes of making very extra special Hunger Games/Twilight money. Paraphrasing Tina Fey’s Golden Globes quip, Hollywood finds what you like and then does it until you’re sick of it.
There’s very little that’s new on display. The template for This Sort of Thing is set. Beatrice chooses Dauntless, the coolest faction with the best black leather gear, asymmetrical hair and penchant for parkour and yelling. She also chooses a new name – Tris – and, most importantly, chooses to keep her divergence a secret, which sets her up for punishment, exposure, sacrifice and, like Katniss Everdeen before her, eventual leadership of a rebellion. It turns out that Erudite, led by a blonde, evil, American-accented Kate Winslet, is planning a power grab for control of the factions and, to that end, are manipulating other factions to do their bidding while eliminating as many Divergents as possible. This coming war will play out, box office willing, in sequels.
And if anything’s going to keep this color-by-numbers franchise afloat for that long it’ll be Woodley. Her story arc may mirror that of young special heroines that came before her, but she’s the most unassuming and relatable of the lot. The actor brings a quality of softness that creates genuine tension when she chooses the extremely daunting Dauntless. When she leaps across too-wide chasms, you fear she’ll fall in, when she chooses a tough-girl name you worry she won’t rise to the occasion of beating up people. When her Dauntless love interest Four (Theo Jame) tells her she’s weak you’ve already been waiting 40 minutes for the film to acknowledge that fact. She fails challenges left and right, daring you to fear she’ll be dropped from this battle crew and forced to run the rebellion from the land of the Factionless, a burgeoning mass of misfits who seem to do very little besides sit around open fires, eat dirt and not bathe.
Of course YA rules don’t allow for that sort of thing, at least not for long. These heroines rise; they take control; they fight and they win. That’s something. And if nothing else, it means that at least some stories about young women, women who aren’t defined by their relationships to men, are making it into wide release films. Next step: see if Hollywood can make a few that don't all feel exactly the same.