Another day, another movie based on darkly dystopic book trilogy with a brave and beautiful teenaged girl who is the only one who can save the world. This time it is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who lives in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the ravages of a barely-remembered but devastating war have resulted in a totalitarian society that appears benign but is brutal and corrupt.
What is left of civilization has evolved or devolved into a rigidly divided society. There are five factions each named for its sole defining characteristic. Annoyingly, some of those names are nouns and some adjectives, because none of the factions have grammar as a specialty, but they are descriptive. There is Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). The tasks of the society are assigned appropriately. Amity are the farmers. Dauntless are a combination of law enforcement and military. Abnegation care for everyone, even the factionless, and due to their tradition, culture, and ethos of putting the good of others before themselves, they are the governing body.
Each year, all the 16-year-olds are tested to determine whether they will stay in their faction of origin or are better suited for another. If they leave, they never go home again. The slogan is “Faction over blood.”
Beatrice Prior’s test shows that she is a rare “divergent,” combining the qualities of three of the factions: Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. This means that she has a unique ability to solve problems and understand issues more deeply in a way that threatens the ruling and would-be ruling powers. She does not tell anyone and chooses Dauntless while her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who will be Woodley’s romantic interest in the highly anticipated upcoming “Fault in Our Stars”), chooses Erudite.
Beatrice choses a new name for herself: Tris. She and the other inductees are subjected to an intensive boot camp to learn to fight and prove their courage. The top performers will stay with Dauntless. The ones who do not make it will be factionless, which means homeless and shunned. Part of the training includes sessions in a fear room, where the subject’s worst and most disturbing fears are revealed to themselves and to the people conducting the tests. Tris’s test is overseen by Dauntless leader Four (hunky-but-sensitive-for-a-Dauntless Theo James). There is a strong connection between them for reasons they do not yet understand.
Kate Winslet plays Jeanine, the calm but steely Erudite who acts as a sort of Chief Operating Officer of the entire community. She is convinced that human nature is something to triumph over, even eliminate entirely, in order to preserve the peace, and if preserving the peace means chaos and murder, she will not hesitate because she believes it is for the greater good. Not being Candors, the Erudites have been spreading rumors about the Abnegations to try to take over as rulers. They cannot do it without the support of the faction with physical courage. What is the best way to get that support?
Much of the storyline involves the series of physical and psychological tests that Tris and her fellow inductees must take, knowing that anyone who does not excel in every category will be kicked out and shunned. It is fun to see Tris come into her own, making the most of all she has to draw from and to give to others. She knows you do not have to be harsh to be strong, or weak to be kind. And her divergent thinking ability enables her to evaluate options, assess probabilities, and plan strategically. Woodley carries the most improbable of the story’s twists with sincerity and sweetness that keeps us on her side. And it is a relief, for once, to have a YA female-led trilogy that does not depend on a love triangle to hold our interest.
Parents should know that this film includes intense and graphic peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, guns, fighting, suicide, loss of parents, mind-altering drugs, some strong language, sexual assault, romantic kissing and brief discussion of waiting to have sex.
Family discussion: Which group would you pick and why? What is the significance of Four’s name? What compromises of freedom are necessary for peace?
If you like this, try: the books by Veronica Roth