‘Divergent ‘ a thoughtful teen-targeted sci-fi tale of tribalism

by Bill Wine
Posted 10/23/20

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

“Divergent” is a 2014 science-fiction drama set …

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‘Divergent ‘ a thoughtful teen-targeted sci-fi tale of tribalism


Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Divergent” is a 2014 science-fiction drama set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic Chicago based on the best-selling trilogy of Young Adult novels by Veronica Roth.

In the bleak and gritty Chicago envisioned by Roth, people are divided and segregated into five distinct factions, a caste system based on personality and dedication to the cultivation of a particular virtue: they are Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Candor (the honest).

In this society, all sixteen-year-olds must choose whether to remain in their faction for the rest of their lives or switch to another once and for all and then devote the rest of their lives to that “family.” What follows this irreversible decision is a highly competitive initiation process (shades of “The Hunger Games”) during which participants undergo extreme physical and intense psychological tests.

Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who was born into the Abnegation tribe. But because she shares traits with multiple factions and doesn’t fit squarely into any of the five, she is divergent. It’s a full-blown identity crisis, and that forbidden designation must remain a secret because it would mean certain death for her if it became common knowledge.

It falls on Tris to discover that underneath the seeming stability and peacefulness of this society there is a sinister plot being played out.

Forced to choose a faction to join, the uncategorizable Tris picks Dauntless, the fearless faction that protects the city, and she is trained by Tobias “Four” Eaton, played by British actor Theo James.

Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, the leader of the Erudite faction, who is bent on destroying all Divergents, seen as a dangerous threat, by brainwashing others into murdering them as part of her plan to gain control of the government.

When Erudite stages a coup to overthrow Abnegation’s ranks as enforcers, Tris and Four, obviously drawn towards each other, find themselves fighting in a civil war between factions.

Director Neil Burger, juggling action, romance, and philosophy, spins his wheels a bit as he lays exposition pipe designed to accommodate at least a trio of movies. In spinning in a few directions at once, he allows his narrative to lose a degree of urgency and momentum. But the film is resourcefully shot and it recovers as a stand-alone entity with an action-packed climax even as it keeps the audience primed and anticipatory for the next two installments, “Insurgent” in 2015 and “Allegiant” in 2016.

Included in Burger’s large supporting cast are Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, and Ray Stevenson.

The largely humorless adapted screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor of Roth’s metaphorical work addresses such universal themes as family and community and offers thoughtful metaphoric parallels that are especially resonant to teens, such as wanting to belong and making choices for the long haul, freedom versus conformity, and dealing with expectations that one has about one’s future self.

Woodley and James are solid and quietly charismatic in the leads, if a shade less than compelling, but with interactions and reactions that are natural and believable.

The makers of “Divergent” did not rise to the level of commercial success of, say, the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” franchises in the pop-culture firmament. But it still managed to exceed the quality of the former and come close to that of the latter.

Absorbing and visceral, “Divergent” is thoughtful teen-targeted science fiction about faction friction and defection.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.


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