The franchise that is Divergent will most likely be remembered for giving Shailene Woodley her first lead role. Many comparisons have been made with The Hunger Games films, as both feature a strong young woman played by an upcoming actress with great talent, and deal with a (really, must I use this word again?) dystopian society that eats young people for breakfast.
The main problem I had with Divergent is that I am not a teenage girl, and this is a film squarely aimed at young females. It’s such a set of clichés that if it were not acted so well, and directed as well, it would be laughable. A young woman doesn’t quite fit into society, which puts people into categories (cliques) that are rigid and unforgiving. But our heroine doesn’t fit into a category; she’s bigger and broader and encompasses more than these narrow groups would confine her to. She’s strong AND smart AND giving, which is a threat to the social order (read: high school).
She makes her choice of which group to “belong” to, and overcomes many an obstacle to b-a-r-e-l-y make it into the higher echelons. Of course she has to connect with her inner (and outer) strength to do so, and she pushes herself to her limits. At first, the dark and hunky leader of the group seems to be antagonistic, but after a while, romance blossoms. Of course, he is the perfect high school dream—a strong and authoritative leader with a soft side who happens to be better looking than the girl (why am I thinking of Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme here?).
The film keeps its focus on the emotional moments with shots that tend to linger over significant moments, and direction that has the main characters pause just a little longer than makes any sense before 1) getting up or 2) moving into an action they’ve clearly already made up their mind about doing. (Seriously, your name just got called; you knew it was coming; just stand up already! And you knew you were going to put your old clothes into the fire–just drop them in and stop taking so long!)
The camerawork is also tighter than many a YA action film, the better to keep the focus on the faces and the various tight relationships. And then there is the music that enters with “dramatic” tones at moments that remind one of the creepy organ music that accompanies certain horror movie moments. OK, we get it. This is a big, hairy moment. But we knew that before the music told us how to feel about it.
The saving grace here, as often is in modern YA and superhero films, is the complete dedication of the actors to their roles. Woodley is probably a better fit for her role than Jennifer Lawrence is as Katniss in The Hunger Games, but both suffer from the same problem of not looking tough enough for their roles. Woodley in particular looks too weak all the way through, without the internal fire and external power her chosen group of colleagues possesses. Her action scenes are triumphs of editing rather than showing us what a fighter she has become.
But as Lawrence first gained attention in A Winter’s Bone before becoming a phenomenon in the first Hunger Games, Woodley was the best thing in The Descendants, and announced with that performance that a significant new young talent had emerged. As a “divergent,” she is supposed to carry an array of skills, talents and emotions, and Woodley delivers. She knows how to be alone in a crowd (touchingly) and can fill her eyes up, believably, at just the right time. This is a career that will be exciting to watch.
Theo James is a good, strong balance to Woodley as her antagonist, coach, and then love interest. His is a tough role to pull of with conviction (it would be easy to overplay), but he plays rough and tough, and then tender, with equal ease. He doesn’t show Woodley’s talent, but doesn’t have to, as the film rests on her young shoulders, not his.
Like many other current action-filled films, it’s too long by 20 minutes, choosing to play things out rather fully rather than moving things along at a faster clip. It’s all of a piece with the pace of the rest of the film, though, which could easily have benefited by a greater level of energy throughout. But this is a film about the challenges of growing up female in a society that doesn’t accept or understand you, and the emphasis is on the emotional journey, which can’t be rushed.
That strong emphasis, for those wondering, is what makes it so different, and less enjoyable, than The Hunger Games films. Those films resonate with socio-political commentary in ways Divergent could but doesn’t. The Hunger Games also has outrageous colors and actions and performances that don’t belong in the one-note world of Divergent. Those are bigger films, and less focused on the emotions of its central character.
But one doesn’t have to compare it to appreciate it or not like it. It’s a well-acted coming-of-age story that would connect most strongly with the young and female. The rest of us can enjoy the action and/or the acting, and be grateful that its talented young star will no longer be a hidden treasure.