Jennifer Yuh Nelson adapts the first novel of a YA sci-fi trilogy by Alexandra Bracken in a film starring Amandla Stenberg and Mandy Moore.
Superpowers are an affliction for teens in The Darkest Minds, with fearful adults wanting to kill or imprison their mutant offspring, turning some into soldiers who will, presumably, kill off less compliant kids. A resistance will rise — multiple resistances, in fact, whose leaders’ motives will soon come into question — and a heroine with extraordinary gifts will have to decide which team to join while remaining loyal to the handful of teens who have helped keep her alive.
The live-action debut of Jennifer Yuh Nelson (director of the second and third Kung Fu Panda films), this is, of course, the first of a planned trilogy adaptation of YA novels by Alexandra Bracken. Young moviegoers who haven’t yet tired of cookie-cutter dystopias will find a sympathetic protagonist played by Amandla Stenberg, but viewers who’ve taken this ride enough times to want, for instance, subtext addressing real-world oppression should look elsewhere.
Stenberg had her big-screen breakthrough in the trailblazer for this kind of YA epic: She played Rue, Katniss Everdeen’s doomed ally, in the first Hunger Games film. This time, she gets the Katniss role: Ruby Daly, who has developed frightening powers of mind control and is trying to keep the world from noticing.
It has been six years or so since a mysterious pandemic called “IAAN” wiped out 90 percent of the nation’s children (and presumably those elsewhere in the world). Those who lived were changed by the disease, developing superpowers. Some are just really smart; others are telekinetic or can manipulate electrical currents. Conveniently, these abilities can be sorted out neatly into a handful of color-coded kid categories, from the least dangerous Blues and Greens up to Oranges and Reds — who are so uncontrollable they’re supposed to be killed on sight.
Lest you think this color code is some kind of numbskull oversimplification invented by the Department of Homeland Security, it’s actually a numbskull oversimplification created by the author: If a kid is classified as a Green, his eyes turn green when he’s thinking something smart; when those telekinetic kids make things float through the air, their eyes turn blue. Easy-peasy — except that Ruby, who’s an Orange (meaning she can control others’ minds, in scenes that play exactly like those where Obi-Wan Kenobi toyed with stormtroopers), has so far managed to pass herself off as a Green in the concentration camp she’s been shipped to.
Since the movie skips over the outbreak of and reaction to IAAN, it doesn’t have to do the hard job of convincing us that America’s parents just rolled over and accepted having their few surviving children kidnapped by the government. (Who would tolerate a government that did that?) The only parent whose response we see here, in fact, is the president of the United States (Bradley Whitford), who claims his son Clancy (Patrick Gibson) was cured of the disease and therefore doesn’t need to be imprisoned. Convenient.
Early on, Ruby is freed from her camp by a kind doctor, Cate (Mandy Moore), who turns out to be working with The Children’s League. Cate describes the league as a safe haven, but Ruby soon has reason to doubt that, and falls in with three kids who are on the run sans adults: Liam (Harris Dickinson, who plays J. Paul Getty III on FX’s Trust), a handsome telekinetic; Chubs (Skylan Brooks), who wears glasses so we know he’s the smart one; and Zu (Miya Cech), an electricity harnesser who never speaks.
While the foursome are dodging “tracers” — bounty hunters trying to round up and/or kill kids — they learn of a camp where young people fend for themselves. Their leader is the Slip Kid (so named because he’s given captors the slip so often), and our heroes start trying to figure out where the camp is. (The movie briefly forgets that Ruby can make people do things: When she meets strangers who know the camp’s location, all she gets is the cryptic clue “EDO.”) Along the way, Ruby balances the heartache of her childhood (she accidentally used her powers to wipe all memory of herself out of her mother’s mind; inexplicably, the amnesia spread to her father, as well) with her growing attraction to Liam, whose idea of courtship is to bring her used tube socks while she’s drying off from a shower.
These two likable actors have just enough chemistry to fuel third-act conflict, after they arrive at the Slip Kid’s camp: This paradise has a dark side, and its leader uses his connection with Ruby — they’re the only two Oranges known to have survived — to pursue her romantically.
Liam barely gets a chance to be jealous before the plot starts revving up into cliffhanger mode. Viewers who have bought into things so far will surely appreciate the violent battle and deepening melodrama here, as the plot sends all four friends down different paths and promises big temptations to come for Ruby. It may all be pretty thinly imagined stuff compared to the travails of Katniss (to say nothing of her more mature ancestors in sci-fi/fantasy), but for those who happen to be turning 14 or 15 as this hits theaters, it may suffice.
Production company: 21 Laps
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Cast: Amandla Sternberg, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Miya Cech, Patrick Gibson, Mandy Moore, Bradley Whitford
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Screenwriter: Chad Hodge
Producers: Dan Levine, Shawn Levy
Executive producer: Dan Cohen
Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editors: Maryann Brandon, Dean Zimmerman
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting director: John Papsidera
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes