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Divergent (2014)

| March 26, 2014 | 0 Comments

It is nice, once in a while, to encounter an actor who doesn’t have to scream to get noticed.  That is a very rare quality that has all but disappeared in an age when actors feel the need to push full-force at us with cloying overconfidence.  The best actors, in my opinion, are those who capture our imagination with ease, presenting themselves as if they are visiting the movie by accident from the real world.

The actress Shailene Woodley is like that.  At 22, she is diamond in the rough, a performer who projects intelligence and grace, yet possesses and upfront vulnerability that is comforting.  Watching her, you feel like you’re watching not only a real person, but one who is relatable.  She is pretty, but not conventionally beautiful.  She’s smart, but not a know-it-all.  Plus, unlike her contemporaries who all seem to be interchangeable clones of the same personality, you actually remember her.   Check her out sometime as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendents (for which she won Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards) or as the sweet, level-headed girlfriend to a class clown in the perfect teen love story The Spectacular Now.

She has proven herself in down-to-earth dramas.  Now the challenge for Shailene Woodley is to see if she can buoy a dry popcorn entertainment.  That test comes in Divergent, an otherwise standard post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller that is not exactly original, but is brought out of the doldrums almost exclusively by Woodley’s unforced performance.

Based on the best seller by Veronica Roth (which I haven’t read), Divergent borrows the pattern of dozens of other post-apocalyptic thrillers, most prominently Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (which I have read) and takes place in Chicago in an unspecified future when wars have allowed the government to separate the population into factions based upon their best personality traits: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), Erudite (intelligence) and Dauntless (bravery).  As teenagers, each member of the population gets to choose, through a series of tests, which faction they will join for the rest of their lives.  Nearly everyone possesses one discernible trait.  If they possess more than one of these traits they are called Divergent.  This is a quality that the higher-ups don’t desire for reason I won’t reveal.

Up for the choosing process is Beatrice Prior (Woodley) who soon christens herself with the name Triss, and discovers that she must hide her Divergence.  She’s put into the Dauntless category and sent off to something that amounts to a military school.  Needless to say, she’s at the top of her class.  Her training includes not only fisticuffs and sharp-shooting but also digging deep into her darkest fears (she has a thing about crows) to learn how to deal with them in combat.

You can guess that this is not the most original story in the world.  It’s out of that ancient formula of the weak kid who is put into a cruel boot camp and proves that she is not the runt of the litter.  Of this, Shailene Woodley proves that she is more convincing using her brain than her fists.  Yes, she’s tough but there’s something else about her that exists in her eyes.  You don’t feel in her supreme confidence.  In other words, she acts her age.

She brings a welcome spark to a film whose function rests with Hollywood’s current obsession with cranking out film versions of every moderately popular Young Adult novel currently in the hands of your local high school student with hopes of creating the kind of midnight door-buster fury that has previously accompanied The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Twilight.  Coming up, by the way, are adaptations of “The Giver”, “The Maze Runner”, “Fallen”, “Uglies”, “Leven Thumps”, “The Discovery of Witches”, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, and “The Fault in Our Stars” which also stars Miss Woodley.

Of this overcrowded market Divergent is better than some but not as good as others.  It has an interesting message about the importance of individuality and a warning about overblown government bent on keeping the ordinary citizen in its place.  Kate Winslet comes into the picture as an executive who has some frighteningly reasonable excuses for keeping the population at bay.  It’s nice to encounter a script that has a point and not just a lot of kick dancing and crummy buildings.  And with a natural talent like Shailene Woodley in the lead, it actually makes you look forward to what will come next.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.