The advent of adolescence is, for many preteens, the first brush with cliques and social cordoning. What J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series intimated was that everyone’s place within the order of things is predestined and, as represented by that infallible sorting hat, inevitable. What Veronica Roth’s Divergent series intuits, and what represents its one clear coup in the young-adult franchise sweepstakes, is that there’s only thing that fills pubescent souls with dread more than the possibility of being sorted—whether by hat or through standardized testing—into the wrong “house.” And that’s to be forced to define, or categorize, oneself in time to get college applications mailed out. At least you can rebel against an authority figure’s definition of your character. Being handed the reins is infinitely more overwhelming.
Divergent gives its teens the cold sweats in a moderately futuristic, post-war Chicago, where residents who’ve submitted to a five-pronged class system are protected by a massive security fence, and those who haven’t (or, more ominously, couldn’t hack it within their own class) are kept on the outside to fend for themselves. Upon graduation age, Chicago’s youth are tasked to pledge their lives to whichever faction they choose, though only after they’ve undergone a psychologically avoidant-borderline neuroimaging regimen that gives them very clear recommendations how to choose. Like many caste systems, it’s seemingly built to keep people exactly where they were born. That applies to everyone but the “divergents,” or those whose emo aptitude tests show them to be proficient in multiple categories, a condition that puts the entire classification arrangement in jeopardy.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), being the story’s protagonist, is of course a divergent, with off-the-chart readings that her test administrator sweeps under the rug to keep her off the radar of those who would destroy her. You know, jealous types. Beatrice was born into the Abnegation tribe, but though they’re somehow technically the ruling class in Chicago, their charitable, humble Amish act couldn’t be any less appealing to a teenager. (It’s a wonder anyone picks them at all at the public-selection ceremony.) So Beatrice picks the acrobatic, adventuresome Dauntless band, who protect the order of things by, apparently, jumping from moving trains, getting tatted, and playing elaborate tournaments of Capture the Flag in abandoned amusement parks. So long as Roth’s scenario focuses on
Beatrice Triss attempting to adjust to her chosen family’s brutish training regimen (shades of Katniss) and sincerely wondering if she hasn’t made the incorrect decision, Divergent transcends the déjà vu of its borrowed trappings and serves as a working metaphor for that transitional moment in any young adult’s life where they’re expected to step out on their own.
But unfortunately, in doing so, the movie ironically sacrifices all momentum in favor of a long series of physical tests. It’s well into the second hour before it becomes clear that some shady scheming is percolating from the Erudite faction, who represent the brainy ego to Abnegation’s superego and Dauntless’s id. (The other two factions—the reconciliatory Amity and truth-telling Candor—are at least in the first installment mere extras.) Led by sneering business-suit baddie Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, playing a far more credible Nazi here than in The Reader), the Erudite are revealed to be plotting to overthrow Agnegation’s rule. Given the latter’s avoidance of pride, common sense would call it an act of generosity on Erudite’s part, but apparently common sense isn’t factored into their brand of “knowledge,” or they’d simply ask Abnegation to step down.
More believably, at least within the confines of YA fiction, Triss’s journey toward a higher state of consciousness kicks off with the promise of tall, dark, pouty-lipped nookie—in the extremely eventual future. Theo James provides more than enough PG-13 smolder as Four, Triss’s personal coach as she tries to win over the skeptics within the ranks of Dauntless. But though their relationship flares, Triss cuts him cold with an admittedly very abnegatory “I’m saving myself.” And such is the crux of Divergent’s frustratingly dystopian spin, insisting its teens make all of their life-changing decisions before they’re ready, and then celebrating a hero for denying herself the one thing biology has pretty much already given the green light.