“Fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up.” Said midway through the film, this is “Divergent’s” underlying premise. Directed by Neil Burger with screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on Veronica Roth’s novel, “Divergent,” in simple terms, is a coming-of-age story for its heroine, Tris, (Shailene Woodley).
But this film is anything but simple and that is meant as a compliment. Tris faces a wide range of obstacles—family separation, the feeling of being different, athletics, bullying and first love. How she manages to overcome and embrace each challenge is at the movie’s heart.
Although this film takes place in the now familiar setting of so many films of this genre—a future dystopian society—this time Chicago, the rest of the film is very different from other such films. Based on their personalities, humanity is divided into five groups—Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave). Tris lives with her brother and parents as part of Abnegation, the faction that looks after the poor, as well as runs the government. At age 16, Tris, like other teens of similar age, will be tested using a serum to determine which group they would really fit…not necessarily the group in which they have been raised and which they will need to choose at the Choosing Ceremony. If they choose a faction different from the one into which they were born, the chances are good that they will never interact with their family again.
When Tris is tested, she is fortunate to have a sympathetic tester. The tester tells her that she has qualities from each faction—in other words, Tris is a Divergent. Tris is told to keep this secret at all costs because Divergents are considered threats…they think independently and are not conformists. While troubling, having this information seems to free Tris. She no longer feels obligated to stay with Abnegation, and at the Choosing Ceremony she surprises everyone by joining the group to which she has always been drawn—Dauntless.
Tris is immediately thrown into the group of new Dauntless members and forced to take on a variety of intimidating physical challenges. Initially not as strong as some of the others, she is singled out for taunting by Peter (Miles Teller). She also comes under the sympathetic watch of trainer, Four (Theo James), who sees and appreciates how hard Tris is pushing herself. Four, it turns out, has secrets of his own. When Jeanine (Kate Winslet), leader of the Erudites, begins to suspect that Tris is not exactly what she claims to be, it is Four who tries to protect Tris.
“Divergent” is more than a teen film due in part to the heavy weight acting of its cast, particularly that of Woodley and James. Shailene Woodley continues to impress. She is able to come across as an “every young woman” who possesses something a little bit more. She’s just a special actress. Theo James, heretofore known primarily for his stint in “Downton Abbey” and CBS’s all too brief “Golden Boy,” is fabulous in this film. Not your typical leading man, his eyes burn with intensity and he and Woodley, despite the age difference, have great chemistry. Ashley Judd, as Tris’ mother, is very good and her brief scenes with Woodley feel very real. Kate Winslet is the surprising weak link in an almost one-note performance.
“Divergent” is not full of special effects and frankly, they are not necessary. A compelling story with terrific acting is really all you need to make a top-notch film and Divergent delivers completely on that score.