At the heart of Divergent is an extremely adolescent metaphor, one that may seem deep to its target audience, but less so to those of us for whom the teenage years are but a nasty memory. In this world of the future, children of a certain age must choose to be in one of five major factions: Dauntless (the jocks), Amity (hippie-dippy farmers who love everyone, so basically the stoners), Abnegation (willing servants, the wallflowers), Candor (brutally honest, the student council types), and Erudite (honor students). Once you choose, you are defined as that thing forever, but every once in a while, somebody comes along that is just so special, such a deep thinker, that s/he simply cannot be, like, a conformist, man! His/her mind “goes in a million different directions”! This person is a Divergent, and a grave threat to the established order. Also, the immediate surroundings (Chicago, in this case) are the entire world. Nothing exists outside of it.
The future is high school. And nobody grew up. If Twilight, as has been theorized, is the fat girl imagining what it would be like to be romantically pursued by the hunk, Divergent is the hot girl wanting people to characterize her by more than one trait.
Fans of the book can undoubtedly say, with justification, that this movie was not made for me. I agree. So why review it? Perhaps because potential viewers like me will think that it is for them, and it might help them to know otherwise. Perhaps because stories for teens can have broader appeal if done right. Lord knows we celebrate many immature and arguably childish things on this very site; superheroes, for example, are rooted in power fantasies for little kids. Yet at their best, they embody either traits that we recognize in ourselves and wish to also overcome (mostly Marvel) or ideals we aspire to (mostly DC). And I really can’t imagine wanting to be any of the characters in Divergent, or relating to their major dilemma of being typecast, when most anyone past 30 realizes that a whole lot of us have more than one defining trait.
Part of the problem is that there’s no clear threat. A giant fence has been built around future Chicago, but nobody ever says what it’s to protect against, and nothing threatening ever appears to come near. The closest thing to a villain is Kate Winslet as Jodie Foster in Elysium, but as dangers go, she’s not much of one. So you spend most of the movie following characters in the Dauntless faction training to be worthy (basically, they’re a mildly more benevolent version of the Foot Clan as depicted in the first live-action Ninja Turtle movie) – but what are they training FOR? We knew what the jeopardy was at Hogwarts, in the Hunger Games, hell, even Twilight had its Volturi. Divergent has one misbegotten scheme, and it never feels like a true endgame. Yes, this is the first part of a trilogy, but (not really a specific spoiler) it ends without making you excited for upcoming things, as it feels like they did everything there is to do in Chi-town.
Shailene Woodley is Beatrice, soon to be self-renamed just Tris, who comes from the Abnegation faction. When she takes the test to see what group she belongs in – think the Sorting Hat, if it could give you hallucinations – it comes up with multiple options, marking her as Divergent. This is immediately explained to be a problem, but we’re not yet certain why – people are entitled to choose a Faction other than the one the test shows (remember the career placement tests you took in high school? Those just got serious, bro). Beatrice, at the last second, chooses to leave her family and go with Dauntless – it is implied that she has something of a death wish. And when I say implied, I mean that other characters repeatedly, specifically say she has one (we’re talking drinking-game levels of repetition), even though I don’t really see it in the way the character is actually portrayed.
While Tris’ struggle to not reveal that she has a multi-faceted personality is the primary dilemma of the story, there’s a greater plot at work. Abnegation, the servant class, are also in charge of government, because they actually still take the term “public servant” literally. Erudite, however, think the smart ones ought to be in charge, and are working to smear the Abnegation folks in charge and replace them in the leadership role, which would throw the society out of balance. And with all that going on, they still have time to worry about Divergents, though they don’t seem to worry at all about the actual Factionless, who are basically all beggars feeding off scraps. It is the conservative stereotype made real – every homeless person literally is someone who simply didn’t want to work…within a Faction.
I’ve been a fan of Shailene Woodley since The Descendants and (particularly) The Spectacular Now, whose main lead Miles Teller (the future Reed Richards) is here again too. Online fanboys deride her for not being sufficiently hot, but the fact that she looks like a real-life attractive girl makes her more appealing to me than some Barbie-styled model type, and allows the viewer to focus more on her actual performance than sitting there like Beavis going “Boyayoiayoing!” (Teller’s character is here to tell her how non-hot she is, which is a funny bit of meta-commentary even if it was unintentional.) She’s not the ass-kicker Jennifer Lawrence has been lately, but I suspect that if we get to all three movies it’ll be a very different performance by the end, as it is one which grows and changes even in one film. She’s the movie’s greatest strength, and almost enough to recommend it…but if you’re a fan of hers, you know full well she’ll be in a lot more movies, and there’ll be plenty of chances to watch her in better ones.
So there you have it. Divergent is not the movie for me. But if you find yourself still stuck in an adolescent world of cliques, and think you’re the only one who uniquely feels as you do – well, this may be empowering. Though not as much as the eventual truth that none of that stuff really matters for long.