In the latest sci-fi allegory for teenage angst, "Divergent," a young girl named Tris sits in a glowing chair, preparing to have her mind invaded, her aptitudes judged, her future decided. Afterward, she will take her place, permanently, in one of five social factions. "The tests," she says, "will tell me who I am."
"Divergent" is set in a dystopian, postwar future -- in a half-bombed, walled-off Chicago -- but Tris could be any modern-day student whose life choices depend on standardized testing. In "Divergent," her options are the brainy Erudite faction, the logic-oriented Candor faction or, lower on the pyramid, the food-growing Amity or charitable Abnegation factions. Then there are the Dauntless: young, daring, black-clad, parkour-performing types who protect and serve. Tris (Shailene Woodley, of "The Descendants") will join them, but she has a secret. She's a cross-factional, multitalented misfit -- a divergent.
More than any other recent teen franchise, including "The Hunger Games," clearly a close cousin, "Divergent" hammers home the school-as-society metaphor. The Dauntless fortress, run by the merciless Eric (Jai Courtney) and the dreamy but emotionally unavailable Four (Theo James), turns out to have co-ed bunks, cafeteria tables, the brick walls of a nightclub and an on-site tattoo parlor. Even in a post-apocalyptic future, emo is on the soundtrack and the cool kids stand around holding drinks.
Based on Veronica Roth's bestselling young-adult novel and directed by Neil Burger (2011's flyweight thriller "Limitless"), "Divergent" is overlong and, at first, extremely repetitive. As in "Ender's Game," the action centers mostly on training games, which means much interpersonal drama (Zoe Kravitz and Miles Teller play fellow recruits) but little real-world urgency. Outside, the world is teetering on chaos, but Dauntless is pure hazing: Survive and you're in, otherwise you end up "factionless" -- a death sentence for any teenager.
The grown-up cast is a mixed bag. Ashley Judd briefly plays Tris' mother; Kate Winslet is slippery cool as Jeanine Matthews, an Erudite exec who will eventually kick-start the plot.
What keeps "Divergent" from spiraling into total teen triviality are its two young stars: Woodley, thoroughly convincing as a scrawny outsider with inner grit, and James, witty and serious in a role that could have been eminently mockable. Together, they seem strong enough to keep this hopeful franchise alive. The sequel, "Insurgent," is due in theaters next March.
PLOT In a rigidly stratified future, a misfit girl hides a terrible secret.
RATING PG-13 (some sensuality, intense violence, action and thematic elements)
CAST Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet
BOTTOM LINE Somewhat silly and teen to the extreme, but Woodley and James are surprisingly strong. It's up to them to keep this hopeful franchise alive.
JAMES DEAN INSPIRES 'DIVERGENT' DIRECTOR
When "Divergent" director Neil Burger sought inspiration for the movie's teenage heroine, there was one character that immediately leaped to mind -- James Dean's Jim Stark, the rebellious protagonist who defies his parents and peers in 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause."
"He just doesn't feel at home," Burger said. "So he goes looking for something more."
Such can be said of Beatrice "Tris" Prior, who struggles against the pressures of conformity in "Divergent," based on the futuristic best-selling trilogy by first-time novelist Veronica Roth. "She starts out questioning where she fits into society, and then, by the end of the movie, she's questioning society itself," Burger said.
It was a demanding role, and in casting, filmmakers sought someone who could hold her own in the company of more experienced cast members, including Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd, and embody the brave and at times reckless warrior as well as the ordinary, vulnerable girl. They found their heroine in 22-year-old actress Shailene Woodley.
"She really is very, very self-sufficient and is her own kind of warrior in terms of she wanted to do her stunts herself," producer Lucy Fisher said. "She has a huge amount of inner strength. . . . She's very mature beyond her age, as is Tris."
-- Los Angeles Times