Fitting in as a teenager isn't easy. When I was a teenager, S.E. Hinton split us into jocks, freaks or greasers. In "Divergent," the metaphors aren't quite as subtle.
Having never read the popular young adult book series, I entered "Divergent" without any preconceived notions. From the ads and similarity to other recent movies, I expected a coming-of-age film starring a plucky teenage girl who bucks a futuristic system while on a journey to self-discovery. The film never diverges from that expectation.
As the lights go down and the film begins to roll, the audience finds itself in a dystopian future where the cradle of civilization is now Chicago. Why Chicago? Don't ask me, it remained a mystery. Maybe deep dish pizza?
Society has been split into different "factions" in order to maintain a peaceful civilization. When a teenager reaches a certain age, they are put through a "test" that tells them which "faction" they fit into. No, it's not a big floppy hat, and Gryffindor House isn't an option, but the idea is much the same. The "factions" represent levels of social strata meant to be metaphors, but with names like "Candor" and "Dauntless," are they really metaphors?
The heroine is Beatrice Prior played by Shailene Woodley, the talented young actress who gained attention as George Clooney's daughter in "The Descendants." Beatrice has been raised in the Abnegation faction, a faction so selfless and modest they put timers on their mirrors. Hair highlights and makeup, however, are apparently no problem.
Beatrice's test is administered by a mysterious character named Tori who is played by an underused Maggie Q of TV's "Nikita." I say mysterious because we never discover how or why she keeps popping up in such diverse places as government testing facilities and tattoo parlors. Tori must have a comprehensive resume. During the test, Beatrice finds out she is divergent, a free-thinking individual with traits from a variety of factions considered to be dangerous by the powers that may be just that themselves.
Following the "test," the initiates must then go through a "reaping" — wait, sorry, I keep getting these stories confused. No bows and arrows in this movie. In "Divergent," the kids go through a "choosing." Prospects can choose whichever faction they wish regardless of their test results, so the "test" seems to be more of a suggestion than a binding contract. Beatrice chooses Dauntless, because who wouldn't?
The story continues to play it safe by following the tried and true formulas that have worked for so many predecessors. The first thing Beatrice does is change her name to a more hip and dangerous sounding "Tris," but she never displays the dangerous skills that should go with the name. In fact, the poor kid gets beaten up more than scrambled eggs. Woodley has hair that could be named a national treasure and the rare ability to connect intimately with an audience, but she's got some work to do to become convincing as a girl capable of causing damage.
Tris' love interest, Four, (in a rare moment of levity, a character asks him if 1, 2, and 3 were taken), played by heartthrob Theo James, is, of course, the most skilled Dauntless member, and he has a secret. He's actually a vampire full of angst who wears glitter in the sunlight and — what was that? I'm wrong again? I should have taken notes. No vampires or dog-faced boys here, but Four does have a secret that connects him and Tris, although it's not too close of a connection. When things turn romantic, Tris wants to go slow and Four, like all teenage boys, is a perfect gentleman. Parents of teenage daughters from around the world can thank the author.
Kate Winslet shows up as an evil politician with a one-note performance that made me wonder if her agent talked the Oscar winner into this one. It was so uninspired, it took a minute to recognize her. Ashley Judd does a nice turn as Tris' mother but enjoys little screen time.
I left the theater without a clear idea of what the stakes were in the movie or where the plot will go in the inevitable sequels. Woodley made me care about Tris, but the narrative failed to make me care about the world she lives in. I guess I should have read the book first.