Yes, this one is coming in with all the hype of the new “Hunger Games,” and that’s probably an unfair burden to place on any film. But when one considers the succession of the “Harry Potter” series and the “Twilight” series, it’s obvious that films that appeal to teenagers (and especially young teenage girls) are here to stay. Their audience is huge and changes constantly, so the next big thing for that demographic becomes monumentally important at the box office.
In the “Divergent” series, set in the indeterminate future, some kind of big war 100 years ago has left the city of Chicago’s skyline wearing some of the old devastation and destruction. Since this is told from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), we don’t really get a catch-up history lesson, nor do we seem to know much of what’s happening outside our immediate environment. We do know that they’ve built a huge fence around the city for “security and protection” (though we’re never quite sure who the menacing enemy out there is, either).
What we do know is that Society is divided into five groups, or Factions, by their particular strength or virtue: Erudite (intelligence), Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (bravery). This part goes by really quickly at the beginning of the movie, but it’s important to catch the intent here: you group up with your parents within a particular Faction. Each contributes something to the Society: the Erudite are the researchers and scientists, the Amity, believing in harmony, do the farming together, the Candor folks run the courts system (how great would it be to outlaw deception in that venue?), the Dauntless are the brave cops/security force, and the Abnegation Faction, where Beatrice grows up, are the selfless ones who are the social workers and those in the helping professions – and right now they are also the public servants like government officials, but it seems a revolt is afoot. The Erudites are trying to figure out how to manipulate the Dauntless to take over against the Abnegation Faction, designed to be what we would have called a military coup. But Beatrice isn’t too worried about all that at first. Instead, she’s more concerned about the dramatic public event where every 16-year-old declares which “Faction” they will pledge allegiance to and leave their parents’ home for (“Faction Before Blood”).
Well, Beatrice is troubled because she feels some affinity for all the factions and realizes that choosing one necessarily suppresses the tendencies toward the others. OK, for all of you folks out there wondering what appeal any of this might have for teenage girls, this is the identification part: Beatrice is placed in a bewildering, vaguely hostile world not of her own making and forced to make difficult decisions about how she will direct her energies when she still doesn’t really know herself well enough yet. Kind of like high schoolers these days scrambling to choose colleges on the basis of areas of study concentration when they’re really not sure yet where their interests lie and don’t really want to make self-limiting decisions like that, but somehow feel forced to do so. And of course, all this time, those hormones are awakening, which sometimes trumps all rational considerations.
Beatrice, forced to choose, finally selects Dauntless, but the training regimen is immediate, harsh and brutal. Worse, those who don’t do well in the “training” are summarily dismissed, which means forced to be “non-aligned,” that is, hovering around trash heaps looking for food scraps. (Yes, the implication is clear that anybody who doesn’t mount the serious career track is doomed to minimum wage hopelessness.) Yes, “Tris” (as she’s re-named herself) finds courage within herself, but also discovers she’s somewhat “Divergent” (that is, having capabilities spanning several Factions, but that seems to threaten the Powers That Be somehow), and she also falls in love with her instructor (he’ll be useful later).
Yes, it’s a cautionary morality tale wrapped in a teenage romance, but the actors are good enough to make it believable and even somewhat suspenseful. Prepare for the inevitable sequels.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.