Beneath all the trappings of its dystopia, Divergent is really just another John Hughes’ teen comedy disguised as a YA thriller. The premise is basically built upon every high-school cafeteria in every teen comedy ever: There’s the Abnegation table (or “faction”), meant for the do-gooders; the Amity table, meant for the peaceful hippies; the Candor table, meant for the gossips; the Dauntless table for the jocks; and the Erudite table for the nerds. Only in this high school, the power-tripping nerds have figured out how to use the jocks to take over the high school.
After decades of being the outcasts, the nerds are officially teen movie villains now. Thanks Zuckerberg!
As in most other teen comedies, the central theme is about refusing to conform. It’s basically a better version of Josie and the Pussycats (although, not that much better). Before the kids enter high school, there’s a sorting-hat gimmick in which a test involving dream hallucinations is given to determine which table each individual is supposed to sit at. It’s just a suggestion, of course, and most people are sorted into the same table as their parents, but you also have the option of choosing a different table in the cafeteria, although you do so at your own peril.
The results in Tris’ exam (Shailene Woodley), however, were inconclusive. She’s kind and smart and selfless and brave, and in the world of Divergent, you’re only allowed to be one or the other. Why? Because well-rounded people are harder to keep in line. You can’t be smart and strong. There are no prom queens in Divergent. You conform, or you die. Tris goes against her do-gooder parents and sits at the jock’s table, only to discover that there are a lot of Mean Girls in that faction (including characters played by Miles Teller and Jai Courtney).
The new initiates are put through rigorous testing involving hand-to-hand combat, capture the flag, a fancy version of paintball, and climb-the-wall, and those who do not perform well do not get fruit cup. In fact, they are expelled, tossed out into the courtyard with the burnouts, goths, and stoners, forced to fend for themselves.
It turns out that Tris, who is like the entire cast of the Breakfast Club in one character, is eventually really good at all of these tests. In fact, she is so good that she runs the risk of revealing herself to be a Divergent, and the nerd table with their lead Heather, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), doesn’t like Divergents because they upset the delicate equilibrium in the cafeteria. If Tris starts bouncing around from table to table, cliques are going to start mixing, the cheerleaders are going to start banging the band geeks, and then dogs and cats will live together, mass hysteria! The fat kid will punch James Van Der Beek at prom, and nobody wants the fat kid to get a standing ovation.
There’s also, of course, a Jake Ryan, Four (Theo James), who kind of has amazing lips, actually. He’s a sensitive jock, who is tired of Cobra Kai’s antics, and Tris eventually Ringwalds herself past his wall of stoicism, and the two become an item hellbent on destroying the cliques.
Divergent is a very dumb movie, but it’s not without its merits. It’s modestly entertaining if you can get past the dopey premise. There’s a few impressive actions sequences in it, as well, and a couple of one-liners that are deliciously awful.
Shailene Woodley is also captivating in the lead role. I feel bad for her. These franchise movies come up, and they pick the next person in the “Hollywood It” line, and Woodley’s number just happened to come up at the wrong time. A couple of years ago, and maybe she gets The Hunger Games. A year later, and maybe she’s the next Star Wars female lead. She’s a better actress than this franchise deserves, although she does manage to elevate it ever so slightly above Mortal Instruments (and it is considerably better than Twilight).
But it’s not Hunger Games. Or Harry Potter. There’s not even enough teen angst in it to appeal to the Twilight demo, and I don’t think that Woodley is a big enough star to bring in an audience on her own. It will almost certainly do well enough to justify extending Veronica Roth’s book trilogy, but it’s unlikely to inspire much fervor. There’s nothing new here: It takes a bunch of tropes and themes from other films, and combines them into a muddled, listless mish-mash that only stands out because of the performance of Woodley.